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6 Degrees Entertainment

'American Friends: Limited Edition Collection'
(Alfred Molina, Connie Booth, Fred Pearson, Michael Palin, Robert Eddison, et al / DVD / PG / (1991) 2016 / 20th Century Fox)

Overview: Reverend Francis Ashby, a rather stuffy professor at St. John's College Oxford, heads off for a walking holiday in Switzerland. High up on a rocky Swiss plateau, Ashby stumbles across two American women: Caroline Hartley and her beautiful eighteen-year-old ward, Elinor. He soon finds the company of the women a charming and refreshing change from his all male, well-ordered world at Oxford.

DVD Verdict: I confess that I've never found Michael Palin very funny. His desperate mugging in 'A Fish Called Wanda' marked a particular low. And his many, many travel documentaries have at times stretched to breaking point his ability to say something interesting about his journeys. But, and against type, his finest work as performer and writer is 'American Friends' and it is very fine indeed.

Based on the true story of his great grandfather, it is a wonderful, gently comic evocation of the claustrophobic lives - and obligatory bachelorhood - of 1860's Oxford University academics (the repressive world which spawned Lewis Carrol). A wonderfully rich, gently comic performance too by veteran Robert Eddison as the dying head of the college, surrounded at the end simply by his college fellows. Entirely devoted to academic excellence and religiosity, only occasional male horseplay for some ever interrupted their high-minded bachelor lives.

The natural candidate to take over as head of the college, the Palin character, thus seemed fated to live and die within its confines just as had his predecessor. Reluctantly persuaded to take a short walking summer holiday alone in the (beautifully filmed) Swiss Alps, suddenly into his late bachelor life comes Womanhood, Beauty - and Love - in the shapes of a middle-aged American lady and her young ward. Again a wonderful poignant dignified performance by Connie Booth; her young ward's youth and beauty making her suddenly aware that her own looks and prospects are now both very much on the downward slope.

An inauthentic jarring note was Alfred Molina's portrayal of Palin's academic rival; so openly leering, crude and dissolute, it was difficult to imagine that he could have coexisted with his high-minded fellows - unless they were so very unworldly that they failed to understand him.

Curiously very reminiscent indeed of 'Goodbye Mr Chips' (1935), arguably 'American Friends' is a far better film; subtle, gentle and beautiful. Palin was a student at Oxford and there is affection, respect and an intense attention to period feel in his portrayal of the character and the place. This is a Widescreen Presentation (1.77:1) enhanced for 16x9 TVs.

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