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MOVIE REVIEW : Making 'Friends' at Oxford : Monty Python alumnus offers a refreshingly unsentimental view of Victorian rigidness and oppressive conventions.

April 23, 1993|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Several years ago Monty Python alumnus Michael Palin came across the diaries of his great-grandfather, an Oxford don, and they inspired his charming and understated "American Friends" (at the Sunset 5). It probably shouldn't be taken as a factual account of his ancestor's life, yet leaves us wishing that it were--so stunning is the film's ending.

Palin takes us into the rarefied, masculine world of an Oxford college in the 1860s, and we feel quickly that we're in Merchant-Ivory territory where everyone's slightest inflection is fraught with implication. Palin casts himself as the Rev. Francis Ashby, a senior tutor and the strongest contender to succeed the college's ailing, ancient president.

Ashby is a trim, pleasant-looking man of 46 of such proprietary dedication to his college, where he has resided for 27 years, that it is remarked that he would be upset if so much as a soup tureen were purchased during his absence. Indeed, as he prepares for a walking tour of Switzerland, he says, "Holidays are anathema to me, and I shall be taking a considerable amount of work with me."

On vacation, however, he makes the acquaintance of a forthright Philadelphian, Miss Caroline Hartley (Connie Booth), clearly his intellectual equal, and her young, rather bored niece Elinor (Trini Alvarado). Upon his return to Oxford, Ashby is astonished when the two women arrive unannounced and unescorted, thus flouting Victorian convention two-fold.

From here on "American Friends" reveals the vulnerability of the individual who has always observed strictly the rigid, often oppressive conventions of the society in which he was born. Innate decency and good looks undercut Ashby's stuffiness, but he does give the impression that in middle age he is almost certainly a virgin. He is about to experience a clash between reason and emotion for the first time, and discover just how messy life can really be.

*

Ideally, the two women should have arrived in Oxford, where they decide to spend the summer in the nearby countryside, after Ashby had secured his promotion. Ashby would have been attracted to Caroline as much as she is to him, and the attraction between Elinor and Alfred Molina's Oliver Syme, Ashby's key rival for the presidency, a younger, more liberal--and, alas, less principled--man would have been less superficial. Yet in the eye of the growing storm Ashby proves that, when tested, he is not wanting in character or courage, although at last, in taking decisive action, he cannot do so without hurting another.

"American Friends," which was written by Palin and its director Tristram Powell, is so dry, its humor as brittle as old parchment, that in its first third you may find your attention wandering. But it's worth waiting for it to kick in. Typical of such British period pictures, its settings, costumes and acting are impeccable. Of all the Merchant-Ivory films it brings to mind, it most resembles their version of Henry James' "The Europeans" in that it shows the terrible gamble a Victorian woman had to take if she deviated from convention in the slightest in her pursuit of happiness and security.

With its magnificent Oxonian settings and its lush pastoral scenes, "American Friends" (rated PG for some mild language and sensuality) is a beautiful film but one that's utterly, refreshingly, devoid of sentimentality and nostalgia.

'American Friends'

Michael Palin: Rev. Francis Ashby

Connie Booth: Miss Caroline Hartley

Trini Alvarado: Miss Elinor Hartley

Alfred Molina: Oliver Syme

A Castle Hill Productions release. Director Tristram Powell. Producers Patrick Cassavetti, Steve Abbott. Screenplay by Michael Palin, Powell. Cinematographer Philip Bonham-Carter. Editor George Akers. Costumes Bob Ringwood. Music Georges Delerue. Production design Andrew McAlpine. Art director Chris Townsend. Sound Tony Jackson. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.

MPAA-rated PG (for some mild language and sensuality).

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