Anarchy rules in this enjoyable update of the 1954 Ealing comedy The Belles of St. Trinian’s. Encouraged by their unorthodox headmistress, Rupert Everett in drag (channeling Dame Edna, Queen Elizabeth, and the late great Nancy Marchand as Livia Soprano), the girls at a ramshackle British boarding school plan a heist in order to save the establishment and embarrass the powers that be, represented by Colin Firth’s snooty Education Minister. Blending the music hall bawdiness of Benny Hill with snarky pop-culture references and contemporary musical and cinematic stylings, St. Trinian’s looks like it was a helluva lot of fun to make. Its exuberant spirit is contagious—one reason it should please crowds stateside and why a sequel is currently in production.
Alastair Sim took on dual roles as the headmistress of St. Trinian’s and her bookmaker brother in the 1954 film, which was inspired by the cartoon drawings of Ronald Searle. Joyce Grenfell, George Cole and Hermione Baddeley joined Sim, and the collaboration of director Frank Launder and his co-writer Sidney Gilliat spawned four sequels. In this 2007 reworking, Everett sinks his prosthetic teeth into the part of Camilla Fritton—a lumbering Amazonian out of Sherwood Forest via a Noel Coward drawing room. He’s more creepily off-putting portraying her brother Carnaby, a shady art dealer whom we see depositing his daughter at the school in the opening frames. To call the institution bedlam is not an overstatement. But make no mistake, the inmates, while they have free run of the asylum and engage in all sorts of illicit activities, are not in charge. Everett’s Camilla, even when high on booze and pot, has a firm grasp on the reins.
One indication of the peculiarly British Music Hall humor involved is that the first time Firth’s ramrod minister Geoffrey Thwaits pays a visit to St. Trinian’s, he discovers his old college flame, Camilla, ruling the roost and his leg is humped by her lap dog. (On a subsequent visit, when the same act is repeated, the dog is doomed.) There’s plenty of verbal wit on display as well, though it’s just as broad. For example, late in the proceedings Camilla tells the reform-minded Geoffrey, “I’m afraid I had to slip you a little something and you returned the favor.” Another emblematically choice line comes when, responding to a call for smelling salts on the hockey pitch one eager St. Trinian’s skirt screams, “No, but I’ve got Poppers.” We’re not talking scintillating or sophisticated dialogue. The references to CSI, Hogwarts, The Sopranos and Desperate Housewives feel so 2007. It’s vital to remember, however, that this is a populist exercise, aimed at the masses. No one does highbrow/lowbrow better than the Brits.
Carnaby’s daughter (Talulah Riley) is horrified upon her arrival, as well she should be. Head Girl (Gemma Arterton) shows her the ropes, explaining how the student body is divided into clicks—the chavs, posh totties, geeks, glams, emos and first-years—but she can’t prevent the innocent lass from being pranked in shower and the resulting video being posted on YouTube tout suite. The hugely talented and undisciplined students spend their time distilling vodka and masterminding petty crime jobs with the help of a lovelorn Cockney fence named Flash (Russell Brand). When they discover the bank will foreclose on the school unless ₤500,000 materializes, all the girls band together to raise the money. They decide to enter a televised school quiz show, the finale of which (hosted by Stephen Fry) is to be held at the National Gallery in London. That’s where Vermeer’s The Girl With the Pearl Earring is on temporary exhibit. The painting is good for a Scarlett Johansson joke and as the quarry of their elaborate heist.
St. Trinian’s is a hoot, but it’s thrown-together, haphazard feel will only grate on the sensibilities of cineastes or aesthetic and moral prudes bent on decrying “yoof” culture—although it’s only moderately rude by contemporary standards. Music and fashion are essential elements and contributors to the soundtrack include the band Girls Aloud, who briefly appears on camera. The only weak link in the terrific cast, which can afford to squander the participation of stalwart character actors such as Toby Jones and Celia Imrie, is Mischa Barton, who has a cameo as a former Head Girl. Otherwise, there’s nothing sour to report. That said, if Are You Being Served meets Saved by the Bell meets Animal House doesn’t sound like your cupper, then skip St Trinian’s as well as the soon-to-wrap St. Trinian’s: The Legend of Fritton’s Gold.
Cast: Rupert Everett, Colin Firth, Lena Headey, Gemma Arterton, Talulah Riley, Russell Brand, Toby Jones and Stephen Fry
Directors/Producers: Oliver Parker and Barnaby Thompson
Screenwriters: Piers Ashworth and Nick Moorcroft
Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements, drug and alcohol content, sexual material and language.
Running time: 97 min.
Release date: October 9 NY/Boston