Co-scripted by and starring Michael Palin, of Monty Python fame, AMERICAN FRIENDS is his re-telling of the mid-19th century love affair between his great-grandfather, an Oxford don, and a young Irish-American woman he met in Switzerland. Palin's script is also a gentle satire of the
insular, male, hidebound life at Victorian Oxford University. One of the film's ironic sub-plots is that the university fellow who argues tactfully for change, Oliver Syme (Alfred Molina), is a cad, while the awkward and shy stick-in-the-mud Francis Ashby (Michael Palin), is the more honorable and
In 1860 Oxford, not only were women excluded, but so was anybody who wasn't a professed Anglican; no Catholics, Jews or Quakers allowed for another decade. The academic emphasis on the classics, as shown in the film, was a reason other colleges and universities were founded to study science and
modern languages. While the occasional homoerotic prank is tolerated on campus, fellows like Ashby are not allowed to marry; they are supposed to center their lives on the school and its affairs.
On holiday in Switzerland, Ashby feels free enough to bathe naked in a waterfall amid the Alpine splendor. Elinor (Trini Alvarado), the ward of Caroline Hartley (Connie Booth), spots Ashby with her binoculars and later strikes up a conversation with him when they meet during a hike, and the two
American women take up Ashby's impulsive offer to guide them through the mountain trails. They get a little lost, and Ashby sprains his ankle and falls, requiring aid and care that the Hartley women are happy to provide. During a saint's festival near their hostel, Ashby drinks with them and even
listens to Elinor's faintly rude feminist riddle: "Why is a man like a telescope?"
As a romance seems about to bloom, Ashby has to leave suddenly for Oxford; the ailing rector has taken a turn for the worse and Ashby is heir apparent. The rector recovers briefly, setting up a contest between Ashby and Syme for the post, and into this politely malicious duel come the two women
visiting Oxford. Syme takes pains to ingratiate himself, while Ashby's main difficulty is in coming to recognize his love for Elinor. Ashby's final decision is moulded by the rector's death and Elinor's seduction by Syme.
The idyllic Oxford quadrangle of the opening scenes now seems more like an academic prison barracks, dominated by the repressed and petty, as represented by Ashby's valet, Haskell (Bryan Pringle) clearly now both supercilious and puritanical. And the objectionable Syme can be seen as the amoral
variant of Ashby, with both responding in their different ways to the same stultifying and rigid environment. And both men, perhaps, are the natural consequence of the sanctioned and exclusive homoeroticism that prevailed in the majority of male institutions throughout Victorian-era Europe. (Adultsituations, nudity, sexual situations.)
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