Blighty’s most anarchic, un-PC girls’ school — created by cartoonist Ronald Searle, and the inspiration for five movies between 1954 and 1980 — rides again in 21st century makeover “St. Trinian’s.” Mildly amusing result, with plenty of slack in its 100 minutes, should work OK with its target audience of female Brit tweenies, who won’t notice the pic’s shoddy technical package, sloppy direction and the way the original films’ antiestablishment tone has morphed into a celebration of dumbed-down “yoof” culture. Pic opened last weekend to $3.7 million in the U.K. over three days.
Original series of movies, all created by the writing-helming team of Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, started in 1954 with “The Belles of St. Trinian’s,” still the best in a very uneven bunch. Series showcased the cream of Brit comic talent and character actors of the period — from Alistair Sim, through Joyce Grenfell, to Sid James and George Cole — and though the latest outing does include some contempo comedians (Rupert Everett, Russell Brand, Stephen Fry), the lack of real star power in this department is painfully obvious.
For “St. Trinian’s” aficionados, this one is on par with the fourth outing (and the first in color), “The Great St. Trinian’s Train Robbery” (1966), with the late, great Frankie Howerd in the lead.
Yarn starts with shady art dealer Carnaby Fritton (Everett, a prime mover behind the remake) transferring his daughter, Annabelle (Talulah Riley), from snooty Cheltenham Ladies College to the pure hell of St. Trinian’s, run by his sister, Miss Fritton (also Everett, mimicking Sim’s double role in “Belles”). Latter’s educational ethos is free expression — black marketeering, bullying, gambling and weapons practice — and no sooner is Annabelle in the school than she’s being videotaped in the shower by the other girls and appearing on YouTube.In place of the original two tiers of pupils — fourth-formers (scraggy little monsters) and sixth-formers (sirens in gym slips and garter belts) — the script delivers a contempo cross-section of Brit-youth demographics: chavs, posh totties, geeks, emos (aka goths) and first-years, all ruled over by head girl Kelly (Gemma Arterton). The girls’ black-market fixer, Flash Harry, memorably played by Cole in the originals as a Cockney crook, comes over much more weakly in TV comic Brand’s fey perf.
With the school in its usual dire financial straits, the girls decide to steal Vermeer’s painting “Girl With a Pearl Earring” from London’s National Gallery, where the final of a student quizshow will take place. But first the team of terminally dumb posh totties — Chelsea (Tamsin Egerton), Peaches (Amara Khan) and Chloe (Antonia Bernath) — have to cheat their way through to the final.
Last half-hour finally builds a head of steam as the girls’ commando team, led by Kelly, heists the painting while the posh totties blunder their way through the final under the unctuous gaze of its quizmaster (Fry). In the audience is hardline education minister Geoffrey Thwaites (Firth), a conflicted onetime lover of Miss Fritton’s who’s been trying to shutter St. Trinian’s.
Lacking any really sharp dialogue, the film just about goes the distance by juggling its characters in short, sketch-like scenes and inserting occasional musical montages. But beyond Everett’s labored drag act (he’s made up to look like veteran Brit TV presenter Esther Rantzen) and Firth’s unsmiling pol (mainly the butt of in-jokes about the actor’s career), none of the other characters get much of a chance to register.
Experienced thesps like Celia Imrie, Anna Chancellor and Lena Headey get little screen time as teaching staff. Among the pupils, Arterton comes across strongest, but it’s actually little blonde twins Cloe and Holly Mackie who manage to catch the real Searle spirit as a pair of pesky first-years.
Sole standout on the tech side is costume designer Rebecca Hale’s work, which cleverly integrates the traditional Searle look of the girls’ duds with modern yoof fashion. Otherwise, tech package is bargain-basement, with cold, washed-out color processing, so-so editing and chaotic, poorly directed camerawork.