One smarts at the thought of the less-than-delicate process by which the producers of St. Trinian’s, a U.K. comedy depicting an infamously lenient all-girls boarding school blithely populated by delinquents and sociopaths, sought to update the hit Ealing Studio franchise from the 1950s. The whimsical-to-the-brink-of-pointless plots have been axed along with the comedy of manners that was once Ealing’s forte, and all the resulting gaps have been seemingly spackled with pubescent glitter from NBC’s high concept repertoire, rather than the BBC’s; at the start of the film we’re even introduced to each campus clique (the girly “Posh Totties,” the gothic “Emos”) in a scene that feels cut and pasted from Mean Girls. The commercialist compromise is not only disappointing but disrespectful to St. Trinian’s subversive genesis as well.
Directors Oliver Parker and Barnaby Thompson could have successfully adapted some of the dark humor of Ronald Searle’s original comics without risking too much griping from censors, but the source material—which featured uniformed girls who had a habit of drinking, smoking, thieving, and occasionally murdering their classmates—was meant as surreal socio-pedagogical satire for adults and not tweens (in other words, a marketing nightmare). The modicum of morbidity included herein reeks of PG-13 concession: The girls engage in target practice with masculine handguns, distill and bottle low-grade vodka for the libertine Flash Harry (Russell Brand, in a performance so awkward it excites one’s pulse from embarrassment) and, at the climax, attempt to heist a Vermeer in order to settle their school’s debts. And strangely, most of these plot turns are played semi-realistically, as though the notion of children manufacturing liqueur slave labor-style were inherently hilarious.
Rupert Everett also expertly mangles the plum role once inhabited by Alastair Sim; his head mistress is a hammy tour-de-force of puffy-cheeked, false-toothed transvestitism entirely neglecting the stateliness and dignity that made Sim’s Millicent Fritton so memorable. With both him and Colin Firth, as the antagonizing Education Minister, employing Hannah Montana-appropriate histrionics and physical shtick, the sole saving grace of the film is St. Trinian’s student body—much of which impressively transcends the patchy gags of the script. Talulah Riley plays the new girl protagonist with a down-to-earth frumpiness that provides a (sadly unneeded) fulcrum of sobriety; you find yourself mourning her transformation to St. Trinian Barbie Doll via a third-act makeover. And in a small number of devilish throwaway lines, the film finally pays homage to the spirit of Searle. When a student is knocked unconscious during a sporting event, a teacher—also new to Trinian’s—asks for smelling salts. An eight-year-old prosaically offers her poppers instead. The reasons we speculate that a third-grader might have a supply of alkyl nitrites perpetually at the ready are not only funnier than most of St. Trinian’s, they’d also give Miley Cyrus some much-deserved night terrors.