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Saturday, February 12, 2011

A PRIVATE FUNCTION -- DVD review by porfle

British comedy can be anywhere on the dial between wantonly zany and dry as a bone, with Handmade Films' A PRIVATE FUNCTION (1984) wavering somewhere in the middle with an odd combination of subtle and surprisingly lowbrow humor.

With strict post-WWII rationing still in effect, the citizens of 1947 Yorkshire are frantic to get their hands on black-market meat as local butchers live in fear of a Gestapo-like meat inspector named Wormold (Bill Paterson).  In honor of the impending wedding of Princess Elizabeth, pompous snob Dr. Swaby (Denholm Elliott, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK) and the town's other leading businessmen are planning a grand society banquet for only the "best" people, with the main course being an illegal pig raised secretly on a nearby farm.

"Monty Python" alumnus Michael Palin plays one of his patented extremely dull characters as door-to-door chiropodist Gilbert Chilvers, whose dream of owning his own office in town is dashed by a spiteful Dr. Swaby.  His wife, Joyce (Maggie Smith), desperately hungers for both pork and a higher social standing.   When Gilbert discovers the existence of the illegal pig, their access to these may be only a daring pig-napping away.

A PRIVATE FUNCTION may look like an episode of "Masterpiece Theater", but it contains enough poop and flatulence jokes (beginning with the title) to make Alistair Cooke fall out of his chair.  These come into play mainly when Swaby and his cronies sneak out to the farm to check on their pig and discover that it's suffering from diarrhea (possibly from being fed too many dead rats). 

Once relocated to the Chilvers' kitchen, it goes everywhere except on the designated newspaper.  The smell begins to worry the neighbors but is conveniently attributed to Joyce's senile 74-year-old mother.  Much of the subsequent humor comes from Gilbert and Joyce's clumsy attempts to terminate the pig and what happens when its former owners discover its whereabouts, with the ever-vigilant Wormold closing in. 

Intestinal hijinks aside, the film's atmosphere conveys both a dreary sort of nostalgia and bleak desperation, with people crowding into butcher shops for scraps of tainted meat while the upper class eat steak.  The coldly efficient Wormold character, in his relentless search for contraband, may even remind you of INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS' Hans Landa only without his sense of humor.   An almost youngish Pete Postlethwaite plays a shady butcher who increases his business by ratting out his peers to Wormold, who then raids their shops and carts them off to jail.  If this weren't a comedy, the subject could've easily been transformed into an absorbing drama.

Director Malcolm Mowbray keeps a tight rein on things and plays down the farcical nature of the story by keeping it low-key and realistic.  Viewers expecting a slapstick free-for-all to erupt at some point in the proceedings will be disappointed.  Even the ending refuses to ramp things up for a last burst of zaniness, with the closing credits appearing before we're quite ready for them to.

The leads all underplay their parts--no mugging here--with Palin and Smith making the most of their scenes together by keeping it achingly deadpan.  Palin in particular, his bland character avidly preoccupied with various feet throughout the film, has a way with such lines as this withering bit of dinner conversation: "Mrs. Roach's ingrowing toenail seems to have turned the corner."  

The DVD from Image Entertainment is in 1.78:1 widescreen with Dolby Digital sound and English subtitles.  The sole bonus feature is over half-an-hour's worth of trailers for this and other Handmade Films. 

A PRIVATE FUNCTION is the kind of British comedy that fills me with a silent amusement punctuated by the occasional belly laugh. Much like "Ripping Yarns", the series Palin created with fellow Python Terry Jones, it invites us to derive a strangely curdled kind of humor from people and situations that are almost depressingly mundane.

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