So far, the film industry of the early ‘00s seems determined that future generations will remember this particular point in cinema history as the era of the remake. Movies based on original concept have been in the minority, surrounded as they are by revamps of long-dead franchises or big-screen adaptations of television shows from the past. Sometimes, the makers of these films have built impressive works of cinema with the help of solid, old foundations, but for every Ocean’s Eleven or The Dark Knight there seems to be a mob of The Day the Earth Stood Stills and Land of the Losts bringing up the rear.
While even the lamest remakes try to find some justification for their existence, perhaps putting familiar heroes in the path of modern terrorists rather than Soviet agents or pitting them against environmental pollution rather than the possibility of nuclear war, St. Trinian’s, the 2007 film that is first in a planned series based on the classic ‘50s flicks and earlier comics by Ronald Searle, doesn’t even try to make a compelling case for its production. There are the requisite updates in fashion and pop-culture references, but there is very little going on beneath that all-too-thin surface.
Not too much has changed about St. Trinian’s School for Girls in the decades since it was last seen on screen. In the film’s world at least, it is still the only school of its kind in the straight-laced British education system, one where young ladies are encouraged to learn skills like hand-to-hand combat and the brewing of moonshine rather than follow a more traditional curriculum of maths, English and the Arts. As in the earlier films, the boarding-school is run by a woman, Miss Camilla Fritton, who is played by a man (Rupert Everett), a headmistress who is more concerned with keeping the banks from foreclosing on her than teaching her girls the finer points of etiquette.
We first experience the school through the eyes of Camilla’s niece, Anabelle (Talulah Riley), whose father (also played by Everett) has pulled her out of the much posher Cheltenham Ladies’ College so he can save a bit of cash by enrolling her in his sister’s institution. Anabella is appalled at what she sees: a school where the mentally-unstable teachers are overrun by young girls who engage in everything from car-burning to hacking governmental mainframes.
At the same time, the school is under the double threats of reform, thanks to the efforts of minister of education Geoffrey Thwaites (Colin Firth), and bankruptcy, because of Camilla’s overdue loans. Head girl Kelly Jones (Gemma Arterton) comes up with a plan to save the school by simultaneously having the girls win a popular televised quiz show and steal a priceless work of art to sell on the black market, which leads to a climactic third act set in the National Art Gallery.
The plot is classic St. Trinian’s, but none of the details are filled in very well. The girls’ heist is half-heartedly ripped-off from Ocean’s Eleven and it’s countless imitators, while any explanation of why St. Trinian’s is worth saving is left out entirely. The girls in the original films were exaggerated versions of the burgeoning wave of teenagers that was starting to crop up after World War II, and their rambunctious activities were a sharp retort to the old-fashioned ideas about chaste womanhood which still ruled the day.
These girls, on the other hand, are pampered brats whose anti-authoritianism is of the pre-packaged kind you can buy off the rack at Hot Topic.Their school band is staffed by Girl’s Aloud, a pop group created on a TV reality show who can’t help look ridiculous singing an anthem about rebelling against the powers-that-be to the cheers of the dancing student body.These girls are not shocking, they’re annoying, and their willingness to do things like sell their bodies to older men for material possessions seems disturbing rather than liberating in the context of such a lightweight comedy.
As a comedy, St. Trinian’s also fails completely. In place of jokes, we get an endless parade of predictable visual gags and the continued insistence that nothing could be funnier than the sight of a man wearing women’s clothing. This film is imbued with the “context-less-pop-culture-references-are-never-not-funny” philosophy that the makers of Date/Epic/Disaster Movie keep misappropriating from Family Guy, except many of these ‘parodies’ are way past their sell-by date (Gladiator? Still?).
Russell Brand shows up as the Artful Dodger-like Flash Harry, and he is certainly an inspired choice for the role. Yet he seems to serve no purpose other than to make audiences exclaim “Oh look! It’s Russel Brand.” I suspect that the writers believed they didn’t have to actually write any jokes for Flash because they figured Brand’s very presence was hilarious enough in and of itself. Not true, unfortunately
An even more grating aspect of the film are the occasional girl-power moments, in which everyone suddenly starts dancing to the Top 40 rock music which keeps appearing out of nowhere or giving Anabelle various “makeovers” which reveal just how little effort the film-makers put into constructing the school’s different cliques (“Emo girls like eye-shadow! Geeks like Glasses!”). In fact, the more I watched of this film, the more it reminded me of that late ‘90s gem Spiceworld, except somehow more obnoxiously cynical in it’s attempt to steal a few quid out of the pockets of thousands of X-Factor-watching adolescent girls.
Much like Spiceworld, St. Trinian’s has a slew of surprisingly respectable professional thespians at it’s disposable, including Stephen Fry and Toby Jones in addition to Firth and Everett. Shockingly, these actors, who have been involved in many, many classic and ground-breaking projects during their careers, actually seem to be pretty proud of St. Trinian’s, as revealed on the behind-the-scenes featurette included on the DVD version now being released.
Does Colin Firth actually think that ripping off a scene from Old School, which was itself ripped straight from Reservoir Dogs, will make this movie “iconic”? Apparently, because that’s what he says, and even though I can’t understand why, hard as I try, this film and it’s recent (David Tennant featuring) sequel have both been box-office successes, which means a third installment (probably starring Sir Ian McKellan and Oscar-winner Kate Winslet at this rate) is most likely on the way.