Clockwise

Clockwise. Moment Films 1986.
Clockwise. Moment Films 1986.

Before watching the movie:

A downward spiral of comic misadventure concerning getting to an appointment on time. Pretty self-explanatory. Since John Cleese decided to be involved in it, I expect it won’t be entirely predictable, and he’ll at least turn in a funny performance.

Maybe it’s overkill to do two Python-adjacent movies in a row, but this has been kicking around on my list for a while and it attracted my interest this week.

After watching the movie:

Brian Stimpson is a strict, finely punctual headmaster of a comprehensive secondary school, about to make history as the first from such a school to chair the prestigious Headmasters’ Conference in Norwich, 163 miles north. However, a linguistic mixup at the station results in his prepared address going south, and his wife Gwenda takes the car to drive old ladies through the country. He happens to run into Laura Wisely, one of his prefects, driving her parents’ car, and, without other options, asks her to drive him there. Stopping for petrol, Laura calls her boyfriend Dom, the school music teacher, to break up with him, and Gwenda spots Brian driving around with one of his students when he’s supposed to be on the train to Norwich, concluding that he’s hiding an affair from her. Meanwhile, Laura’s mother finds their car missing, reports it stolen, and learns from Gwenda and Dom that she’s driving to Norwich with Brian. So they all separately race to Norwich, while Brian and Laura run into obstacle after delaying obstacle. And they forgot to pay for the petrol.

There’s some criticism over this film’s pacing., but while it does slow down for long stretches, I never felt it unnecessary. Most of the time, the lulls, if nothing else, give a sense of how much time Brian is losing while (not) on the road, building tension, which is released the next time things get moving again on a new level of ridiculousness. Some of the wittiest jokes happen in these lulls, for instance my favorite background gag where a monk tending the monastery’s bees doffs his hat to the ladies visiting in the field, then has to swat away the bees the hat is no longer protecting him from. The beginning until the moment he misses his train feels like it lags the worst, but most of that is necessary to illustrate his orderly, dull, clockwork life in order to create contrast for the rest of the movie.

While of course John Cleese is brilliant at stuffed shirts come undone, I was impressed with Sharon Maiden’s somewhat complicated performance stuck in a road movie as straight woman to John Cleese. She brings a quality I rarely see in 70s-80s British media for adults, as a teen who isn’t a flat character, but worried about her own interests while growing to want to help him for his own sake. She has mischief and abandon, but isn’t defined by them, and brings that out of the writing quite capably.

The nontraditional but inevitable end doesn’t present a neat moral, but I don’t think that means there was nothing under the farcical antics. Brian’s life was a tightly-sprung clockwork, which slipped a gear and came undone. Neither does living without worrying about time serve him. The balance between the two is never found, leaving the movie as a rhetorical question, an exercise for the audience to ponder.

 

Watch this movie: for a familiar British mix of wit and zaniness.

Don’t watch this movie: looking for Monty Python alums. If you found one, you’re done. If you didn’t find one, open your eyes.

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