The "child mentality" within each one of us clings to tradition. If you can remember a happy childhood, you are probably recalling a time when you instinctively distrusted change - because "change" might mean a "change for the worse". By contrast, in those teenage years you welcomed change (it's something to do with hormones). Will this colourless nineteenth century academic Francis Ashby (Michael Palin) escape from the "grown-up childhood" of suffocating university tradition - including celibacy for most of the faculty (they're called "fellows")? The auspices are not encouraging. Everyone in the system, including the Rev Ashby (yes, he's entitled to become an Anglican vicar, if he should fail as a "don") - they're all so self-satisfied. Nothing needs to change, because everything is perfect the way it is. You begin to wonder: How did this hidebound institution survive into the twentieth century? Why is the name "Oxford" still synonymous with the highest standard of intellectual achievement? When did they stop thinking that the study of ancient Greek and Latin was the be-all and end-all? The answer is that Oxford did change, but slowly and reluctantly. In 2004 New Zealander John Hood was appointed CEO (correct title: "Vice-Chancellor") of the University, with a clear brief: the whole place was badly in need of another shake-up. The details are in Wikipedia. Hood got quite a lot of "reforming" done, but after three years of hammering away at entrenched opposition and obstruction, he'd had enough - he wouldn't be seeking a renewal of his 5-year contract.
Much of the energy in the movie "American Friends" went into securing its accuracy and authenticity, almost as a sociohistorical study; so any viewer given to impatience might wonder if this isn't some sort of documentary - enlivened with a modest story line. If you never went to Harvard, you might wonder what a premium university looks like - inside. Thanks to WGBH television, we can watch Professor Michael Sandel lecturing on political ethics to a large auditorium full of very sharp young minds (they're all supposed to have read the challenging course texts). So what was uni like 150 years ago? - it was different! The movie is a test of your imagination as a viewer - can you think your way back into this artificial world of fuddy-duddy pedagogical privilege, a world that did actually exist? There's humour, but it mainly consists of the dry wit and in-jokes of a community of cleverness, cut off from the crudities of the "real world".
The women (who are after all the eponymous "American Friends") are underutilised. Connie Booth ("Caroline Hartley") manages to engage in some dialogue, but the lovely Trini Alvarado ("Elinor") is given very little to do (except model Victorian frocks). Apart from perving at a distant male bather through binoculars, the most interesting thing she does in the movie is to fall into a lake, revealing a glimpse of ankles that are otherwise concealed under all those skirts and petticoats. But isn't all this authentic? - yes it is. A young lady was supposed to be decorously genteel - yes I know! But it takes a mental effort to realise that this code of female passivity was an essential aspect of an era that also featured Florence Nightingale, Harriet Beecher Stowe, George Eliot, Ada Augusta King, Annie Besant and Victoria Woodhull.
Enter the villain. The villain is (of course) change, reform, progress - symbolised by "Oliver Syme", a role nicely understated by Alfred Molina. It's no surprise that Syme might have been considered by your typical puritan Victorian as a "bit of a bounder" - not entirely reliable in his relations with the fairer sex. Just like Ashby and the other college tutors, Syme is a "fellow" - required to remain a celibate bachelor, presumably for the rest of his life. The elderly college President is on his last legs, and Syme is Ashby's main rival in the forthcoming election for a new President. But will a whiff of scandal discredit either of these candidates? Ashby met Caroline and Elinor when he was on holiday in Switzerland. Now they come to visit him in Oxford. But surely it's all completely innocent! Ashby is rather taken by these ladies, but which one does he have the stronger feelings for? And which one has the stronger feelings for him? Nineteenth century decorum enables the movie to keep us guessing - or at least it tries to. And which impulse will win in the end? - Ashby's ambition to become college President, or these unfamiliar stirrings of the heart? Meanwhile they're putting on an amateur production of "King Lear" - which doesn't seem to have much to do with the main plot. One of the people that Ashby met in Switzerland was an Oxford physician, Dr Weeks (Alun Armstrong). Weeks is trying to ingratiate himself with Ashby because he wants to get his son into the college. If the young chap is not up to it (the oral entrance exam requires the memorisation of a hefty chunk of Latin), will Ashby, as chairman of the entrance panel, turn Dr Weeks into a dangerous enemy? The bottom line: You'll enjoy this movie? It depends. If you prefer a leisurely 10-part TV adaptation of a Dickens novel to an overcooked two-hour movie version, then "American Friends" is probably for you. But you'll need to be paying attention. Things are happening even when nothing appears to be happening. I liked it.