The following is my entry in The 3rd Annual British Invaders Blogathon, being hosted Aug. 5-7, 2016 by Terence at the blog A Shroud of Thoughts. Click on the above banner to read bloggers’ critiques of a wide variety of British and Britain-themed movies!
(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)
Clockwise is a sadly overlooked item in the film oeuvre of John Cleese. Although on the surface, Cleese’s characterization is basically a variation on Basil Fawlty, Cleese really gives his all and makes it a very worthwhile farce.
Cleese plays Brian Stimpston, a self-satisfied and very exacting headmaster of a comprehensive school (a school for ages 11 and above, to those of us Yanks who don’t know). When Stimpston is elected to chair the annual Headmasters’ Conference — an honor usually bestowed only upon headmasters of private schools — Stimpson lets it go to his already swelled head. We first see and hear him in his office, rehearsing his conference speech, in which he makes quite a point of what an “historic occasion” his appointment is. Stimpson is frequently interrupted by teachers and students who are confused about where they are supposed to be on campus at that time. Stimpson consults his meticulous set of calendars and quickly sets them right. Stimpson believes that the key to life’s happiness comes in keeping everything on schedule.
Sadly, Fate’s schedule isn’t as smooth as Stimpson’s. Stimpson intends to take the 10:00 train to his conference, wherein he will greet his fellow headmasters at 3:00 and give his speech at 5:00. But a simple, one-word misunderstanding causes Simpson to both miss his train and lose his speech.
Stimpson tries to get hold of his long-suffering wife to take him to the conference, but he just misses connecting with her. In his efforts to reach the conference in time, Stimpson happens across Laura (Sharon Maiden), a truant student he knows, and Mrs. Way (Ann Way), a former girlfriend of his. Once the two women are kind (and naive) enough to provide transportation for Stimpson, he becomes single-minded in purpose, determined to reach the conference at all costs — never mind that Stimpson chalks up several crimes for them and himself along the way.
I’m usually not a fan of farce, because it tends to employ what the late film critic Roger Ebert called “The Idiot Plot” — the kind of plot where the story would be over in two minutes if the main characters didn’t act like complete idiots. But Michael Frayn’s well-thought-out screenplay runs like…well, clockwork. All of the plot twists come from simple and quite plausible actions, and yet one by one, they end up bringing havoc to the orderly life of Stimpson.
This farce is also wonderful because nobody overplays his or her hand. All of the actors are low-key and wonderful, even when their characters are in circumstances that should cause them to blow their tops. Consequently, we the audience can sympathize and laugh with them rather than at them.
And John Cleese is at his finest. Stimpson’s unctuousness is probably the glue that holds him together — even he only occasionally really loses it, rather admirably considering the spiraling mess in which he finds himself. Cleese pretty much lets his body language speak for itself, which of course means he’s hilarious.
If you’ve ever been late for an important appointment and felt as though it was the end of the world, Clockwise is sure to be your kind of comedy.