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Private Function, A (Blu-ray Review)

21 Feb, 2011 By: Mike Clark

$14.98 DVD, $17.98 Blu-ray
Rated ‘R.’
Stars Maggie Smith, Michael Palin, Denholm Elliott, Liz Smith.

If comedy is based on counterpoint — and certainly a lot of the time it is — then Beyond the Fringe writer Alan Bennett’s consummate original (this movie is about what?!?) had a gut-busting advantage from conception. Against a cast of British stiff upper lips immersed in post-World War II culture clashing, we add jumbo doses of doo-doo. And not just any old brand of doo-doo but pig doo-doo whose aroma the story’s two central characters try to pass off as having come from live-in grandma.

If this doesn’t sound like the most prepossessing premise of your moviegoing life, note that three of the performers here won BAFTA’s (or British Oscars), and none of them are the one who’s ostensibly the funniest person in the cast: Michael Palin from the Monty Python troupe. And despite the subject matter, Function’s bright color schemes are easy on the eye — something I remembered being surprised by during the movie’s theatrical release and which is masterfully replicated on the Blu-ray.

The pig debacle is something the script (directed by Malcolm Mowbray) comes by honestly. The year is 1947, and England is in the midst of severe pork rationing — a situation explained in a Pathe newsreel that’s showing at the local cinema where piano teacher Smith plays the organ between shows. This is deprivation enough during normal times, but now Princess Elizabeth of England is about to wed Prince Philip, and the local mucky-mucks want to host a sit-down dinner for 150 of their kind at which oinking contraband hopefully will be served.

Not among these guests are Smith and husband Palin, who bicycles through their town giving pedicures to local wives and watches their clipped toenails take flying trajectories that are longer than some field goal attempts I’ve seen. His occupation doesn’t endear him to the local power brokers, of which the snobbiest is a physician (Denholm Elliott) who’s one of the key power brokers hosting the event. Worse, through some kind of zoning screw-up, Palin has been allowed to open a dreaded office on a street with more refined shops — at which he plans to hang a plastic mail-order foot out front.

Elliott won one of the three BAFTA’s, as did a pair of unrelated Smiths: Maggie and (as her going-senile mother) Liz. He’s a particular stitch holding a handkerchief over his nose and trying not to retch whenever he’s in the vicinity of the pig that’s being raised on the sly for slaughter at a nearby farm. Symbolically, at least, he has the same reaction to a co-host’s suggestion that a Jewish local be invited to the dinner. His appalled retort is less a question of anti-Semitism (though that’s probably a factor as well) than to the suggester’s dumfounding failure to consider what will be on the menu.

Elliott further bemoans the logic in having just fought a world war if it means that the unwashed (like Palin and the Mrs.) can now ascend to something like social standing. How the latter is accomplished has a lot to do with the central pig, which social-climbing Smith (that would be Maggie, not the addled Liz) cajoles her husband to steal. The animal ends up in their home, soiling a good deal of the upstairs — to a degree that forces the momentarily defeated Smith to hand him a tiny pedicurist’s tool with which to slay the beast. Well, good luck on that one.

Produced by George Harrison’s onetime Handmade Films, the movie is as funny as I recalled, with superb supporting performances straight down the line from the likes of portly Richard Griffiths (of the "Harry Potter" movies) to the recently deceased Pete Postlethwaite to Mike Leigh regular Alison Steadman. It would make a creatively natural viewing room double bill with Fred Astaire’s Royal Wedding or The Queen. Or maybe The King’s Speech when it comes to DVD and Blu-ray April 19.

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