Edmund Rostand’s 1897 play based on the life of Cyrano De Bergerac has had many film incarcerations, and inspired many others. The plays story of love, friendship, expectations and romantic intelligence is well known and difficult to portray in new and fresh ways. This familiarity with the subject matter can lead to films being compared with previous incarnations or adaptations.
Old Boys manages against the odds to breath some new life into this well trodden ground. This is no easy achievement, and is helped enormously by a talented young cast and a script that plays with teenage feelings of powerlessness and belonging, while placing Rostand’s play at its core. Just as 10 Things I Hate About You took Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew into a modern American high school, Old Boys takes Rostand’s Cyrano into the oppressive British boarding school, creating a unique context and environment for the play.
Old Boys is the first feature length film from BAFTA award winning short film maker Toby MacDonald. With Old Boys MacDonald manages to create a film that feels like it was it made in the 80’s, the time it reflects. This is a film that feels like a love letter to a decade before smart phones, email and digital media. Its nostalgic approach helps to deliver the romantic elements of the original play through letters, VHS tapes that require endless editing and fumbling clandestine teenage meetings.
The location of film takes the British boarding school system in all its stereotypical glory, using it as a template for teenage control, conformity and toxic masculinity. The clever use of its stifled and testosterone driven atmosphere acts as a barrier to love, respect and kindness. Adults are merely there to justify the labels society imposes on its young, and uphold the class based division of a society where privilege trumps creativity and intelligence. Old Boys almost feels like it is replaces the ugly facial features of Cyrano in Rostand’s play, with the far more ugly nature of a society that bases opportunity only on wealth.
The film provides some truly funny moments, but delivers these with a sweet and tender touch, expressing the bumbling nature of teenage love, virginity and self confidence. You feel for the main characters, and want to continue following them on their journey after the credits roll.
This is a film that owes a huge amount to its young cast, Alex Lawther’s Amberson is full of awkward and endearing energy, proving once again why Lawther is such an exciting young talent. Jonah Hauer-King is lovable as Winchester, a young man whose destiny has clearly been pre-written by wealthy parents, no matter of his academic ability. Both young men play against each other impeccably, divergent in their demonstration of masculinity and control yet similar in the restrictions society places upon them. Pauline Etienne gives us a strong central female character with Agnus, who longs for freedom of creativity and release from perceived control. For Angus this is a central platform of her relationship with the boys, with the boys in turn learning of their own restrictions through her.
The isn’t a perfect first feature from MacDonald, suffering at times from a crisis of confidence in the audience it’s aiming for, but it is hugely engaging and enjoyable.
Old Boys is a charming and fresh take on Rostand’s Cyrano, playing beautifully with representations of masculinity, freedom and societal expectations. This is a film with deep underlying messages, coated in humour and warmth.