A series of films based on the cartoons began with 1954's The Belles of St. Trinian's, starring Alastair Sim. The series slowed down after four films through 1966, sputtered once for a fifth in 1980, and the franchise has remained dormant until 2007.
The 2007 St. Trinian's takes its cue from contemporary young girl-friendly movies like Mean Girls, John Tucker Must Die, Clueless, Bring It On, and, yes...like Spice World, with a modern pop-music soundtrack and female-empowering (altho', unlike the cartoons, seldom fatal) attacks on authority. In fact, while credit is justly given to Searle's original work, most of the teeth of the Belles have been pulled, and the film often sacrifices black humor for glamour.
The setting's suitably macabre enough: crumbling, seen-better-days St. Trinian's in the English countryside, surrounded by warning signs and a few shrunken heads on spikes. I'd guess that swing set in the foreground has served more likely as a gallows.
Against her will, young, fresh, guileless schoolgirl Annabelle Fritton (Talulah Riley) is dragged by her slick, shameless father Carnaby Fritton (Rupert Everett) to the school run by his sister, Camilla Fritton (Rupert Everett).
No, you are seeing double here: as in the original with Alastair Sims, Everett plays both Annabelle's crooked art dealer dad and the gleefully if feloniously cheerful headmistress. I think we've all had situations where we've felt our teachers were no better than our parents wearing a dress, and Annabelle ought to feel right at home, right?
Annabelle's taken under the wing of head girl Kelly Jones (Gemma Arterton, Quantum of Solace's "Strawberry Fields") in quite possibly the least believable subplot of mentorship since that episode of The Apprentice where the winner got to play Scrabble with Martha Stewart. Annabelle will later show off her prowess in field hockey and larceny, but at this time there's no real reason that Kelly is interested in shaping Annabelle except that the plot demands it.
Annabelle gets a quick tour of the schoolgirls of St. Trinian's; the movie stuffs them into contemporary social roles (chavs, emos, geeks, posh totty) without giving the girls much personality beyond that. While Searles's cartoon Belles were mostly nameless and interchangeable, these characters are eminently forgettable and despite their appearance throughout the rest of the film, may as well not have character names at all.
Exception: Tara and Tania (Holly and Cloe Mackie), ten-year-old twins and demolition experts, who manage to pull off a wicked glee at destruction and mayhem better than the actresses twice their age. If you're looking for a gender-reversed version of the Menendez Brothers, Hollywood, have I got the actresses for you. In the entire history of film, only one actor has intoned the phrase "You're only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!" better than them.
The chaos and pandemonium wrecked by the schoolgirls, however, seem to be oddly blunted for this modern version: really, they dump glue and feathers on Annabelle? No setting her hair on fire? No arsenic in her soup? No live cobras in her bedsheets? Shame on you, St. Trinian's. Your patron saint would be rolling in her grave, if she hadn't been chopped up into many pieces and scattered around the Holy Roman Empire to keep her from returning.
Cameo appearances by British stars? Oh, this movie's got 'em by the cartload. Colin Firth (who apparently hides out at night on movie sets and then pops into frame in the morning whether he's written into the script or not) is at least suitably vinegary as the Minister of Education with a secret romantic past with Rupert Everett. The one in drag, that is. (Otherwise, it'd be a completely different kind of movie, and yet, one in which Colin Firth would be pleased to appear.)
Mr. Katy Perry, Russell Brand, continues his contemporary reign of terror on modern cinema as a character from the original films: Flash Harry, the girl's criminal accomplice. The finest compliment one can give to Mister Brand's performance is that he certainly can be said to be "acting."
Colin Firth's out to shut down St. Trinian's, which may be a moot point: the school's bankrupt—curiously, it having the highest concentration of larcenous minds in Britain after Wormwood Scrubs.
The film receives a boost of adrenaline when it seems to introduce an intriguing "fish on fire" subplot that sadly, never gets mentioned again. I for one ask the producers and writers of St. Trinian's to give the "Fish on Fire" storyline a full film treatment. Two hours of flaming fish: sheer cinematic magic.
Is the film at least funny? Well, at moments, but it's more often silly than witty. The best laughs...and curiously the ones most true to the source material...come from short background gags while the action takes place around them. It's probably the best reason to keep your eyes open during the film, and kudos to the set director. If only the script were as clever.
But for the most part, Searles's trademark black humor and implied violence is blunted for an impressionable audience. Look, I'm not asking for gore flying out of the screen and body parts being ripped into (please save that for the next Julia Roberts movie, if you will!), but when the most violent moment of a cutthroat St. Trinian's field hockey game versus their rivals is an (excuse the phrase) ball in the mouth...
...and when the most mischief that schoolgirls let loose in London can wreck is a police constable dunked in a fountain...
...well, it leaves you checking your watch and wishing there were at least a few more moments where stuff blows up real good:
It's well into the second half of the film before the real storyline gets underway: the girls plot, with the precision of Danny Ocean's ten to twelve cohorts, but with shorter skirts, to rob London's National Gallery.
Their target? Well, as one of the Posh Tottys incredulously exclaims, "We're going to steal Scarlett Johansson?"
Somewhere in the middle of this high-tech theft, St. Trinian's has to cheat their way to the top of academic quiz program School Challenge, hosted by none other than the only man who makes more appearances in British films than Colin Firth:
(If you're having flashbacks to The Young Ones episode "Bambi," well, good for you, and you may enjoy taking the St. Trinian's disc out of your DVD player and replacing it with The Young Ones.)
Of course, no grand-theft-Johansson is complete without a total beauty makeover montage, which changes plain-jane Annabelle...
...into dead-faced Maxim-fodder supermodel stock, complete with microskirt and gartered stockings. So clearly the moral of the story is...um...well...er...I got nothin'.
The girls return the Vermeer painting...wait a minute, St. Trinian's does the lawful thing? I call shenanigans, movie. Even tho' the National Gallery gives them a reward, I still say real St. Trinian's Belles would have sold the painting to a Arabian prince for some under-the-table black market money and then poisoned him with an arsenic-and-champers cocktail to steal the painting back. But hey, we're making a movie for impressionable young would-be female criminals, so no point in giving all your secrets away, right?
The reward money of fifty thousand pounds (plus money swindled from Annabelle's father) is apparently enough for them not only to save the school from bankruptcy but also to hire UK girl group Girls Aloud to perform at their celebration rave. Yup. That's the way the movie ends.
So 'round about now you're no doubt sayin', "Hey, you loved the Spice Girls movie; what's up with this?" And that's a very good question. St. Trinian's is a perfectly serviceable mindless fluff movie, and it's a perfect DVD to toss on the barbie for a sleepover of a gaggle of preteen girls. But it lacks the tongue-in-cheek, larger-than-life attitude of Spice World, and its humor is so slight and blunted that the original black-and-white 1950s films are grand art beside this. (The originals aren't perfect, but they've got some brilliant moments, and yes, I'm going to review them here one day.) Perhaps the biggest crime St. Trinian's commits is the lifelessness of its characters. With the exception of Rupert Everett as Headmistress Fritton and the two tiny twins of terror, it just doesn't look like anybody's having any fun in this film, and while the characters hit their marks and look gorgeous and pouty and athletic, it all adds up to a stack of pretty empty performances, acting where you don't even remember...or care...what the character's names are. Talulah Riley as Annabelle has a lot to carry on her shoulders as the movie's main POV character, but the script doesn't give her much to work with. I wonder what a similar yet more experienced actress (say, maybe, Anne Hathaway?) could have done with this role.
St. Trinian's qualifies for this blog by being barely seen in the US. I was actually looking for it to come out in the theaters and I believe its only American run was about two and a half days at the Bayberry Drive-In Theater in Broxton, Oklahoma. But in the UK, this movie was incredibly popular with young girls, and rightfully so. There's nothing wrong with making a movie for a target group that is eager and ready to buy merchandise and tie-ins. I just wish there could have been a little more rebellion and revolution taught to this audience. If there is a lesson being taught by this movie, it's the oddly conventional "stick by your friends and be true to yourself." Not a bad moral in and of itself, but not especially fitting for a school with the anthem
We are the best, so screw the rest
We do as we damn well please
Until the end, St. Trinian's
Defenders of anarchy
Ah well, it's over now, and St. Trinian's ain't gonna bother us again.