St. Trinian’s: School’s Out

The British do seem to enjoy exhuming their past and fobbing it off on an audience unable to resist tradition’s lure. The latest victim of grave-robbing is Ronald Searle’s St. Trinian’s cartoons, first turned into a series of sexy teen comedies steered by Alistair Sim during the 1950s. The idea of this remake seems to be …well, Squally isn’t entirely sure what the idea is. Neither, Squally suspects do the filmmakers.

Searle drew his cartoon featuring the St. Trinian’s girls shortly before he was shipped off to Singapore with the Royal Engineers. He was captured by the Japanese after the fall of the city. He was sent to Changi Prison, where he shared a cell with another 199 captives, and worked on the Burma Road Railway, where his weight dipped down to seven stone. He also suffered a pickaxe to the spine. Those Japanese soldiers were real sweethearts.

After receiving this education in cruelty, Searle returned home and populated his cartoon school with girls who were closely related to both Charles Addams’ family and Dick Tracy’s adversaries. The gels stretched each other out on medieval racks, stabbed one another in the back, smoke copiously, played cards, and generally raised hell. The 1950s series expanded on this vision of all-girl anarchy. While the fourth form ran a Bilko-style criminal enterprise, the sixth form are “fast” to the point of breaking the sound barrier. Searle once spoke of the school hiring an “abortionist-nurse” to tend to these Lolitas, and described the dorms “as smelling like a ladies’ powder room in Fort Said.”

This kind of humor would have gone down well with returning squaddies. In his school, Searle essentially depicted a prison environment whose inhabitants simultaneously rebel against and thrive within the institution. It was populated with a prisoner’s fantasy objects—schoolgirls whose short skirts didn’t quite reach the top of their stockings. It was realized with the kind of cynicism about human nature that comes days spent splitting rocks until your weight dips to level of a half-empty suitcase.

So ideally, a 21st century remake would have the girls capturing a journalist and threatening to broadcast his beheading over the Internet. Or maybe there would be some water-boarding in the locker rooms. Indeed, Abu Ghraib and Lynndie England makes the whole notion of St. Trinian’s a little redundant. As it is, the closest the 2007 version gets to a sincere Searle note is when a tour of the art class reveals a schoolgirl pickled in formaldehyde, in the Damien Hirst manner.

Also to be contended with is a teenage culture which has moved far beyond “anything goes” (have you looked through the pictures on your daughter’s cell-phone lately) and Sim’s definitive performance as the formidable headmistress Millicent Fritton. St. Trinian’s offers instead retro sexuality in the form of head girl Gemma Arterton’s Louise Brooks bob and some Benny Hill-level innuendo about “oral” and “Greek.” Rupert Everett, who is also credited as a producer, tries to dodge comparisons with Sim by playing Miss Fritton as Camilla Parker-Bowles, all squint and teeth. (They even share the same surname.)

Our introduction to the school comes from new girl Annabelle Fritton, Camilla’s niece. She is the subject of a Porky’s-like hazing. Her clothes are stolen while she is in the shower and then the results are broadcast on YouTube. Annabelle also gets an introduction to the school’s tribes, which depressingly resemble those of any other school comedy. There are chavs, emos, geeks, “posh totty,” and the riotous First Years. (Squally suspects that Skins might be a closer descendent to the original St. Trinian’s ideal.) Also lurking around are Annabelle’s ne’er-do-well father (Everett again), the spiv Flash Harry (a game Russell Brand), and a faculty of misfits whose teacher’s lounge boasts a snooker table.

The first half illustrates the school’s anarchy and raises the threat of close by Minister for Schools (and one time Fritton inamorata) Colin Firth. The film has a little bit of fun with Firth and Everett’s history. On being reunited, Fritton remarks, “Another time.” “Another country,” says Firth, invoking a very different portrait of boarding school skullduggery. The second half has the girls trying to save the school by stealing Vermeer’s girl with a pearl earring portrait from the National Gallery. (“I can see why Colin Firth wanted to shag her,” says one girl.) The plan to infiltrate the museum on the back of a quiz show called School Challenge allows the film to sneak in Mischa Barton as a sort of fame consultant and pander to young girl’s notion of celebrity as a viable vocation.

Production designer Amanda McArthur (Penelope) tries very hard considering the budget she has to work with. There are burned out cars on the school lawn and shrunken heads in the trophy cabinet. DP Gavin Finney (Keeping Mum) films it with callous indifference. As with Danny Cohen in The Boat That Rocked, he has fallen prey to the idea that images become more interesting if something irrelevant has been thrown into the foreground. (The approach of a bus through a screen of forest trees is an example of the film’s visual pointlessness.) Finney may have become fed up with directors Oliver Parker (An Ideal Husband) and Barnaby Thompson’s mania to film half the movie through a Webcam. Their lack of inspiration is betrayed by St. Trinian’s uneven tone, split-screen music video montages, and a redundant “makeover” scene. This St. Trinian’s may wear the skirts, but to borrow the lingo of another definitive portrait of Brit youth, there’s a Softie underneath.

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