When British cinema goes to school, it usually prefers to board. This may have to do with the experience of British film-makers as children, or with the literary sources for their work; but it must also reflect the fact that closed communities, with their own language and codes of behaviour, have always made a good setting for drama and comedy: the armed forces, small towns, hospitals, police stations . . .
A Feast at Midnight is set in a rather traditional boys' boarding school and draws on a varied mythology attached to such places, including Billy Bunter and Stalky Co. The cross-referencing is not confined to the public school genre, however; with a plot (and even a title) reminiscent of Babette's Feast, transparent references to Dead Poets' Society, and an authoritarian form master, played by Christopher Lee, who is nicknamed "Raptor", we may feel that the meal is something of a reheated feast.
The board itself is seldom one of the attractions of boarding schools. Exiled from his Parisian home because of a wayward mother and an ailing father, bullied by his classmates and terrorised by Raptor, the young hero of A Feast at Midnight finds that English school dinners do little to relieve his suffering. He decides to sneak into the kitchens after hours and rustle up some real grub. Guided by letters from his gourmet father (whose illness is surely the result of a lifetime's over-indulgence), he initiates some chosen friends, including Raptor's repressed daughter, into the secret delights of haute cuisine. Soon, we feel he must be well on the way to getting the school its first Michelin star.
There is a lot of fun here, but the comic potential is undermined by the children, who don't seem to have been told whether to play their parts or play themselves: they opt for the former, and overact. Ham should not be on the menu. The film as a whole veers between naturalism and comic exaggeration. A number of the situations are pretty hard to swallow (brewing up the liqueur for the Poires Belle Hel ne in the science lab, for example); there is an enjoyable performance by Robert Hardy as the sympathetic Head; and the whole thing should carry a warning to parents and children: don't believe it, no boarding school was ever like this.
Clockwork Mice, which opens on June 23, is set in a very different kind of institution. A young teacher (Ian Hart) takes up his first post at a residential school for disturbed youngsters and, after some uncomfortable moments in class, finds a way to reach one particularly unresponsive boy (Ruaidhri Conroy), by encouraging his passion for running and his innate appreciation of poetry.
Sounds familiar? Again, one can hardly fail to note the references, starting with Dead Poets' Society (again), Running Brave and Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner; but using them seems much less appropriate in a film that is supposed to reflect the personal experience of the writer, Rod Woodruff, in teaching children with special needs. Was he inspired by the films in his teaching, or is he just reviewing events through these fictions? Still more damaging is Vadim Jean's heavy-handed direction, which tells the story as a series of cliches: helicopter shots of boys running across the fields, against a soundtrack of violins or (worse still) poetry; slow motion whenever you expect it; and a subplot about Hart's relationship with another teacher (Catherine Russell), which never suggests any emotion to justify the sugary happy ending tacked on to this sad tale before the final credits. Here is a film that entirely fails to do justice to a promising theme.
* Misleading subtitles: in Claude Chabrol's superb tale of bourgeois marriage, La Femme infid le (re-released last month), the couple's young son asks if, having done his homework, he can read La Source des Dieux. This is a comic-strip album by Peyo, a medieval fantasy about the search for a magic well, "The Spring of the Gods". If the subtitler had been a fan of le dessin anime, he might not have made the child seem even more precocious than Chabrol intended, by suggesting that his favourite bedtime reading is a book called: "The Origins of God".