Ronald Searle (1920-2011) was a brilliant British artist in pen and ink. Even as a captive of the Japanese during World War II, when he was forced into slave labor and became seriously ill, he managed to obtain paper and ink and produced excellent drawings of his environment, captors, and fellow prisoners. In later years he served as courtroom artist during some major trials, including the war crimes tribunals at Nuremberg.
Besides his realistic drawings, he produced loads of humorous cartoons, and among the most popular were those depicting the very naughty students and faculty of St Trinian’s, a fictitious school for girls, the sort of thing you might have expected from Charles Addams had he taken up that subject.
The first film based on the St Trinian’s cartoons appeared in 1954 (The Belles of St Trinian’s) and starred Alastair Sim, better known as Ebenezer Scrooge, playing both the headmistress and her brother. At one point she says that most girls’ schools send their graduates out in the world unprepared. At St Trinian’s, it’s the world that’s unprepared. The older girls wore what were in 1954 scandalously short skirts and stockings. The younger girls were less interested in boys than in explosions and criminal enterprises. Three sequels followed in 1957, 1960, and 1966, then finally in 2007 this new entry appeared.
The protagonist is a transfer student of high school age played by Talulah Riley, who is of course initially persecuted and horrified by her fellow students but soon enough bonds with them. The headmistress is again played by a man in drag, this time 6-foot-4 Rupert Everett. Her nemesis is the minister for education, who also happens to be her former lover from their college days, played by Colin Firth (Mr Darcy in the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice, the king in The King’s Speech, Bridget Jones’s boyfriend, etc), who had costarred in other films with Everett, a fact referenced in some of the film’s numerous in-jokes.
The older students form various factions, including geeks (led by Lily Cole, who played the daughter in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnasus), the Posh Totties (obsessed with style and boys), the chavs (a British term for ill-tempered, anti-social youth), and the emos (a variant on Goths). Among the younger students are a pair of 10-year-old twins who are the school’s demolition experts and criminal masterminds.
The school’s foreign language instruction seems highly practical, for example teaching students how to deny to customs agents that the suitcases are theirs. A new English teacher is played by Lena Heady, best known as the dangerous and blond Cersei Lannister on Game of Thrones and almost unrecognizable here in her natural brunette hair color. The school’s Head Girl is Gemma Arterton, who was a very hot Bond girl in Quantum of Solace.
Russell Brand plays a shady character who aids the girls in their conspiracies and Stephen Fry hosts a quiz show for competing schools, which a team of St Trinian’s students enters as part of a plot to save the school by nicking a famous painting from the National Gallery.
In keeping with the original cartoons, the comedy is dark and sometimes extreme. Reviews were all over the place, but I quite enjoyed it once it got past the initial hazing of the new girl, which I found obnoxious. A lot of the music is fun as well.
Alas, I can’t recommend the 2009 sequel, St. Trinian’s: The Legend of Fritton’s Gold, which amounts to a badly organized sequence of set pieces, some of them tied together by a dumb National-Treasure-like scavenger hunt for a mysterious ring that will lead them to the lost wealth of a pirate ancestor of the school’s headmistress. There are some fun moments here and there, but nowhere near enough of them.
Here’s the trailer, followed by a (slightly sanitized) music video for the end title theme from Girl’s Aloud (the school band):
(The term “ASBO” in the song may be unfamiliar to readers outside the UK. It’s an acronym for “Anti-Social Behaviour Order,” an injunction against youth with a history of bad behavior that forbids them to do certain things, such as hang out in certain areas or associate with certain persons. It can also refer to someone who has received an ASBO, and (as in the song) it can be a verb meaning to issue an ASBO against someone.)
As a bonus, here’s a music video featuring members of the cast for a song heard only briefly in the film, and otherwise unconnected: