UK, Sweden 2019
‘Survival of the fittest’ is the philosophy at all boys boarding school Caldermount. If you’re not a champion on the sports field, you’re a nobody. No one knows this better than bookworm Amberson, who’s been at the bottom of the school’s social ladder since he can remember.
When the French teacher’s fiery daughter Agnes arrives, Amberson’s life is turned upside down. He suddenly finds himself playing matchmaker for Winchester, the school’s handsome but spectacularly dim school-hero. Winchester definitely has the looks to win over Agnes but it’s Amberson who has the wits.
Will Amberson have the courage to reveal himself to her and stand up for who he really is?
To a romantically hopeless, day dreaming adolescent, the Cyrano story felt like it spoke right to every excruciating part of being a teenager. That distinctive Cyrano feeling - failed but heroic romanticism combined with unrequited love - captured the utter uselessness of me and most of my teen friends. The big nose is awkward, painful adolescence - always there, inescapable, debilitating, the first thing anyone notices.
For me, it was the stunning movement and sweep of the Rappeneau/Depardieu version that brought that Cyrano feeling to life. For lots of collaborators on the film it was ‘Roxanne’ with Steve Martin. We wondered what would have happened if Cyrano had the courage to tell Roxanne the truth - how would he have summoned up the courage? What would have been the worst thing that could have happened? It seemed like a wonderful moment in a coming of age story - with the help of a friend, a teenage liar comes clean and his life story really begins.
The other element to the Cyrano story that struck a chord was emotional repression, the idea of burying your true self, hiding it away - a particularly English trait that everybody can identify with. Where would an imaginative boy, different, a real outsider, need to bury himself?
The single sex boarding school is a quintessentially English institution. Arcane places where boys are handed over by their parents to learn how to be men, to conform, a chap factory that turns out the right kind of fellow. These are the boys who run the country. They are told they are great, that they are going to be great and they believe it. Strictly hierarchical, deeply unimaginative, brimming with unfounded over confidence, feelings buried and, crucially, absolutely no women.
The absence of girls is a disaster for these boys. Sports become everything. The school is their family. They are clueless and yet they think they know it all. How do they react when a real girl arrives? What happens when their bravado runs out? Who would they turn to for help? Not only are these teenage boys useless, they barely see any girls ever.
It’s not really a good time to be telling a story with only one girl in it set at a ‘posh’ boarding school - but as the establishment seems to have lifted back its own veil, it feels relevant to be looking at the places that made these boys into our rulers, into what happens at these girl-less places where boys are told to act manfully. Oddly popular again post Potter, they have been given a lick of paint, some soft furnishings and continue to be a source of fascination.
The boarding school genre has been an intermittent staple of British cinema, with Lindsay Anderson (via Jean Vigo) towering over it. We wanted to add something fresh - to look at the inner life of one of these boys, an underdog, colliding John Hughes with Edmond Rostand at a strange, isolated, prison like all boys boarding school.
Amberson is desperately trying to invent himself the way the school wants him to be, to fit in - he optimistically tries to overcome his class but they will never let him. He’s never been skiing. Agnes is tough, vulnerable, funny. She has a depth and maturity that is way beyond these boys.
And yet she is a teenager too, when she lets herself be. Together, Agnes and Amberson are the heart of the film. A teenage boy and girl trying to work out who they are and where they are going.
“Your life begins when you are born, but your life story begins at that moment when you discover that you are in the wrong family” - Phillip Pullman.
- Director: Toby MacDonald
- Producer: Luke Morris
- Screenwriter: Luke Ponte, Freddy Syborn
- Main Cast: Alex Lawther (Amberson), Jonah Hauer-King (Winchester), Pauline Etienne (Agnes), Joshua McGuire (Huggins), Denis Ménochet (Babinot)
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