“I don’t know what the last war was for!” sputter a number of bitter citizens in A Private Function, a cheerfully caustic comedy skewering British class resentments and social climbing in a small Yorkshire town brimming with conspiracy in 1947. Rationing is still taking a toll on domestic kitchens, but the burg’s leading professionals, led by misanthropic Dr. Swaby (a blustering Denholm Elliott) are planning an elite banquet to commemorate the impending wedding of Princess Elizabeth. A few rungs down society’s ladder, chiropodist Gilbert Chilvers (milquetoasty Michael Palin) bicycles dutifully to his patients’ homes, their flying toenail clippings going ping off the ceramics on the mantelpiece, but despite a new office on the main drag, his small-potatoes status in the local pecking order irks his zealously ambitious wife Joyce (a deliciously high-strung Maggie Smith), who squashes his mealtime shoptalk (“Don’t bring feet to the table, please”) and leaps at Gilbert’s desperate suggestion that they, after being continually turned away at an overrun, understocked butcher shop, steal a pig to upgrade their larder and their profile. “It’s not just pork, it’s power!” salivates Joyce.
Unknown to the Chilverses, their porcine quarry is the unlicensed entrée for the royal wedding fete, and the sly lampoons of the movie’s first half kick into robust slapstick gear as the couple wrestles the oinking beast into their home, lacking the will or expertise to slay it, and the town leaders panic over losing their ill-gotten meat or having their black-market crime discovered. (At the offer of a mere two turkeys to replace the kidnapped swine, one bourgeois rages, “We have 150 people coming, and Jesus isn’t one of them!”) The original screenplay by Alan Bennett, a droll jewel of TV and stage since the ‘60s and in recent decades a playwright of West End/Broadway hits, is pitch perfect in leavening the generally base townsfolk and bleak milieu with jokes that deepen character; the municipal meat inspector (Bill Paterson), whose raids are met with cries of “Gestapo,” lacks the senses of taste and smell, and as Smith’s harried Joyce witnesses the contraband pig shitting all over her kitchen floor, she cringes, “I was quite right not to want kiddies if this is what it’s like.”
Veteran BBC director Malcolm Mowbray, who conceived the story with Bennett, staged the action with just the right undertow of nastiness, and drew consistently neat performances from the ensemble, including Liz Smith as Joyce’s perpetually dotty live-in mother, Pete Postlethwaite as a Machiavellian butcher who ruthlessly has his competitors shut down, and Richard Griffiths as a candy-munching accountant who, like Palin’s Gilbert, gets sweet on the pig. A Private Function, as amply demonstrated by a Maggie Smith crawling after the porker, butcher knife in hand, or earnestly wailing for upper-class respect (“My father owned a chain of dry cleaners!”), punctures respectability with lowdown buffoonery and high style.
Aside from some minor flickering, the transfer's image is clear and the colors are pleasingly rich given the dominant palette of humble interiors and provincial storefronts. The voices in the stereo mix are occasionally a bit tinny, which may be a flaw of the original soundtrack, and along with some of the accents and British idioms compelled me to put on the subtitles. Not a bad option, given their description of Betty, the movie's four-legged star, "[squealing intensely]."
None except the theatrical trailers for A Private Function and close to a dozen other features by HandMade Films, the company co-founded by ex-Beatle George Harrison, including Time Bandits, Mona Lisa, and Withnail & I. They hearken back to a time when a British movie industry outside of the Harry Potter franchise actually existed.
An unadorned but felicitous release of one of the wittiest films of the 1980s.