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Mon Nov 24 00:15:26 SAST 2014

Spud with bells on

Barry Ronge | 04 December, 2010 20:370 Comments
SCHOOL DAZE: Troye Sivan as Spud, and John Cleese as 'the Guv' in a film that is hilarious, serious and filled with exuberance

Let me cut to the chase. Spud is a great movie, beautifully filmed and acted. It does full justice to the best-selling book, but director Donovan Marsh has made it into a graceful, funny, tender film.

  • Director: Donovan Marsh
  • Cast: John Cleese, Troye Sivan, Jamie Royal, Jason Cope, Graham Weir

I cannot imagine how it could have been made any better than it already is. It's the kind of South African film we have been waiting to see, and I hope that audiences will recognise the skill and old-fashioned charm that glows in every frame.

It goes without saying that some things from the book have been left out, and Spud purists might bewail that their favourite character or event has been scaled down or edited out, but that's what happens when a book is turned into a film. The salient point is that the original tone and vision have been translated to screen with energy and style. It really is a treat to see such an array of young talent acting with such exuberance.

It's just as much fun to see some of our top performers, veterans such as Christine le Brocq, Jeremy Crutchley, Graham Weir, Terry Norton and others like them, adding their talent to the small roles they play.

It doesn't hurt that the technical aspects are excellent. Ed Jordan has written an evocative score and Lance Gewer's images are crisp and occasionally entrancing. I also like the skill with which the production designer, Tom Gubb, captured the look and tone of the period, just as the political balance of this country was changing.

The story, just in case you have recently awakened from a coma, is about a young boy from an ordinary working-class family who is enrolled in a prestigious school. He feels like an outcast from the moment his family's clapped-out car jerks to a halt among the sleek, luxury cars of the wealthy, as they unload their privileged darlings.

To make things worse, puberty has come late to the new boy, John Milton (Troye Sivan), whose testicles are resolutely refusing to drop. After the first shower, where the older boys check him out, they name him "Spud", and he has to live with it as he makes his way through the rituals of the school.

The core of the story is the relationship between Spud and the ageing English teacher known as "the Guv". It was with some trepidation that the producers and Donovan Marsh sent a copy of the script to John Cleese, knowing full well that he had said publicly that his acting days were over.

Cleese read the script and agreed to play the role. That casting elevates the film to another level, because Cleese delivers one of his finest performances.

"The Guv" has lost his passion for teaching and his marriage is on the rocks. Metaphorically, he is peering into the void, with nothing but a bottle of whiskey to help him though it.

In Spud, he recognises the same sense of insecurity and an odd, crusty relationship is formed between the timid boy grabbing for the future and the old man whose is life slipping through his hands. It's not presented in a sentimental Goodbye Mr Chips fashion. In his curmudgeonly way "the Guv" helps Spud to sharpen his intelligence and overcome his vulnerability. That interaction becomes the saving grace for both of them.

Cleese is magnificent in the role, with a touch of Basil Fawlty's aggressive manner, while creating an astute study of a man with little to which he can look forward.

It's great to have an international star of Cleese's reputation in the cast. The book sold well in the UK, Australia and other countries and his name above the title will help the international sales, but the bonus is that Cleese gives the film a complex and surprisingly tender centre.

I was surprised by how affecting the film is. That is emphasised by a wonderful performance from Jamie Royal in the role of Gecko, a reserved slip of a boy and an easy target for the rowdy boys. His story gives the film a poignancy that delicately counterbalances the rowdy tenor of the schoolboy japes.

Marsh has great fun with the boys' escapades, their games and forbidden moonlight swims. More than that, he captures, as the book did, the exuberance of youth, of boys making the discoveries that will carry them into manhood.

It adds up to a wonderful film: hilarious, serious and, above all, hopeful - another South African film about South Africa that allows the audience, and I hope, the country, to feel proud of the work our artists can do.

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