If any actor working today can complain of being typecast at a very young age, it’s Alex Lawther. The British star of Ghost Stories and The End of the F**king World has already been thoroughly pigeon-holed as the go-to guy for socially dysfunctional and slightly unsettling weirdos. In that respect, Old Boys is more of the same for him. But, you know, “if it ain’t broke” and all that.
Directed by Toby MacDonald, this is yet another cinematic retelling of the Cyrano de Bergerac story. From at least half a dozen straight adaptations to more stealthy reimaginings like Steve Martin’s Roxanne and even DreamWorks’s animated Megamind, the story has always provided fertile ground for adaptation. This time, the action is transplanted into Caldermount School – an uber-posh hellhole with the motto “Act Manfully”. Lawther’s Amberson is the gawky Cyrano to Jonah Hauer-King’s dashing-but-dim Winchester – or ‘The Mighty Winch’ as he is often dubbed by adoring schoolyard sycophants. Amberson and Winch become unlikely buddies when the former helps the latter woo streetwise French girl Agnes (Pauline Etienne) – daughter of the new languages teacher.
As anyone familiar with the Cyrano tale will know, Amberson’s motives are not entirely altruistic. He is completely lovestruck by Agnes, whose slightly pretentious, artsy kook is right up his alley. The so-called ‘Mighty Winch’, meanwhile, is a nonsensical alpha hottie described as a “labrador in trousers” – played by Hauer-King as oddly likeable, despite his elevated social status. His witty repartée extends only to blind assertions about how he will “blast her with my charm bazooka”. It’s fair to say he needs Amberson’s help.
The school environment at the centre of Old Boys is cranked up to monumental proportions. This is a rough, grotesque world in which hierarchy is king – “Caldermount’s not about thinking; it’s about the boast” – and the bizarre rugby/water polo hybrid contest of ‘Streamers’ is the be-all and end-all of everything. This heightened world gives the whole movie a bizarre tone that is initially jarring, but ultimately creates much of the film’s enjoyable quirk and comedic spark. Indeed, one of the major drawbacks of the movie is that we don’t get to explore this world, and its colourful supporting ensemble, a little more.
Lawther is at the peak of his eccentric powers here, playing well off Hauer-King’s jock. Amberson is a bloke who’s better at flick book art than he is at sport, and that puts him a long way down the pecking order at a school where physical superiority is paramount and cheering at screenings of The Dambusters is a key bonding exercise. Every tick and deadpan line delivery feels measured and precision-tooled, as much as I’d like to see Lawther step out of his discomfort comfort zone.
Through Amberson’s eyes, the central message of Old Boys becomes clear. Winch is not the perfect man he appears to be and Etienne’s beguiling Agnes isn’t the self-confident dream girl she at first seems to embody. This film’s story teaches Amberson that power hierarchies are fragile and built on perception. Outside of the school gates, they’re nothing but amorphous bravado.
Without a proper emotional punch to be found, though, Old Boys is ultimately more of an enjoyable curio than it is an essential drama. Lawther, Hauer-King and Etienne make for a memorable central trio of performers and MacDonald’s public school world is ripe for exploration. Despite all of these excellent constituent parts, though, the thing doesn’t quite come together overall.
Dir: Toby MacDonald
Scr: Luke Ponte, Freddy Syborn
Cast: Alex Lawther, Jonah Hauer-King, Pauline Etienne, Joshua McGuire, Denis Ménochet, Nicholas Rowe
Prd: Luke Morris, Simon Perry, Kasia Malipan
DOP: Nanu Segal
Music: Andrew Hewitt
Run time: 96 mins
Old Boys is out in UK cinemas from 22nd February.