American Friends (1993)
Cast: Michael Palin, Alfred Molina
Director: Tristram Powell
Producers: Patrick Cassavetti and Steve Abbott
Screenplay: Michael Palin
Studio: MGM (2/16/16)
Video: for 16:9 screens
Audio: PCM Stereo
Language: English, no subtitles
“And now, for something completely different.”
I couldn’t resist the analogy. It is doubtful that Michael Palin (and John Cleese, et al) will ever shake off their renown from the iconic British comedy from the 1970s, Monty Python’s Flying Circus; and nor should they, brilliant as it was. This very soft, quiet and lightly amusing story, written by and starring Michael Palin, is one of the few times he has gone out and tried to do some largely ‘serious’ acting. For the most part, it succeeds, on the strength of Palin’s measured but quirky performance as a buttoned up college professor.
Palin is the Reverend Francis Ashby, a fairly stodgy professor at St. John’s College Oxford, who goes off on a walking holiday in Switzerland. While high up in the Swiss Alps, Ashby comes across two American women: Caroline Hartley and her beautiful eighteen-year-old ward, Elinor. He begins to find the company of the women a welcome change from his all male, well-ordered world at Oxford. Meanwhile, back in England, he’s about to be elected president of his college, a post intended for a bachelor, when he realizes that his Switzerland experience has changed his views on a number of things. The two American friends reemerge, Professor Ashby has important things to think about, especially when it becomes apparent that both women are competing for his affections.
This movie was one of several stemming from the early 1990s that seemed enamored with a very idealized view of Victorian England (think of all those gorgeous Merchant Ivory adaptations). Apparently, Palin’s screenplay is based on a true story (or at least family tales) of an ancestor of Palin’s who, like many sequestered and somewhat snooty Victorians went on walking tours in Europe and the Swiss Alps and often found love.
This is a quiet, soft and ‘talky’ light romance/comedy that goes to great trouble with scenery, costuming, dialogue and mannerisms and ultimately is a pleasant oddity but not a lot more. Ashby’s character grows beyond his world as it were and navigates his dual difficulties of being a main figure at Oxford and his romantic encounters (which, predictably, get complex.)
The supporting characters nearly overshadow Palin in the presence as well in character performance, most notably Connie Booth and Alfred Molina. The pace, tone, look and even “message” of this story is so ‘British’ that many American audiences did not know quite to make of it at the time of its release and yet it is certainly worth seeing. Incidentally, I was glad to hear the soundtrack by the late Georges Delerue who was an oft used film composer with a gift for understated beauty.
MGM has reissued a number of its forgotten masterworks or movies that have a bit of a cult status to them. This is a worthy addition to the collection of those who like “art films” in particular and Michael Palin shows us, quite well, that his talent is much more than just his amazing work in the Flying Circus troupe.