The clock decided to strike back.
In this hilarious comedy hit written by Michael Frayn (Noises Off), John Cleese stars as the compulsively punctual headmaster of a British high school. But on the day Stimpson is to give a major speech at a posh teachers conference, he finds himself in a frantic cross-country chase filled with missed trains, confused cops, strange monks, odd old ladies and stolen clothes. Can Stimpson make up for precious lost time or is the entire world conspiring to make him late for the most important appointment of his life?
eyelights: the concept. the dialogues. John Cleese.
eyesores: its lack of energy/vitality.
Brian Stimpson: “It’s not the despair, Laura. I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand.”
‘Clockwise’ came out well before I got into Monty Python. John Cleese’s face seemed vaguely familiar to me, but neither he nor the film’s poster intrigued me enough to go see it in cinemas, or even on home video. It was only many years later, after becoming a Python fan, that I decided to give it a chance – and possibly only when a cheap copy of the DVD fell into my hands. I’ll give anything even remotely related to the Pythons a chance.
I turns out that ‘Clockwise’ is a motion picture that has required a certain acquisition of taste. And that took time.
I love the basic premise: An uptight British headmaster, who has built his whole career around the management of time and a maniacal attention to minutia, sees his world unravel before his eyes while on his way to chair a prestigious Headmasters Conference – the first from a comprehensive school to ever do so. On what should be the highest peak of his career thus far, with aspirations to even greater heights, he suddenly finds himself railroaded and running out of time.
What I like about the story is that it’s a likely one: you can craft an activity all you want, but unexpected things will sometimes take place and hobble -if not entirely scuttle- your plans. By making ‘Clockwise’ about a series of possible occurrences, it makes it far more enjoyable than if they were complete contrivances, à la Three’s Company. Even though it is taken to the borders of believability, it never actually crosses the lines – if anything, it blurs it a little from time to time. And that’s a necessary evil sometimes.
John Cleese is absolutely perfect for the part of the Headmaster. Not only do I get a lot of satisfaction out of watching this pinprick get his clock cleaned (not because of his obsessive precision, but because of his general disregard of others, including his own family), but watching Cleese is a delight. Given that he’d played these types of proper, but massively anal-retentive characters for decades, it’s almost typecasting. Except that he plays the character relatively straight this time – not in a caricatured fashion, like he often does.
In doing so, by using this approach, he made Brian Stimpson believable, thereby solidifying the story. Granted, it means that Cleese isn’t outrageously funny (as he is in ‘Fawlty Towers’, for instance), but he serves the picture well. Even when the situation gets desperate for Stimpson, Cleese avoids becoming googly-eyed or moving in his trademark rubbery fashion. For all intents and purposes Brian Stimpson is a real person, with real frailties, having a really bad day. Even though it’s not hilarious, it’s more realistic.
The picture is also filled with superb dialogues: for instance, there’s a school teacher at Stimpson’s school who keeps popping up throughout the film, trying to find Laura, the girl that Stimpson is saddled with on his journey. What’s amazing is that not once does he complete a sentence – somehow, the writers found ways to distract him, make him feel intimidated, lose him in a crowd, or simply cut him off. It’s such a brilliantly-written part, and Stephen Moore does it spectacularly well. Only Michael Palin might have bested him.
However, having said that, due to its subtlety, the dialogue becomes a key issue. In ‘Clockwise’, no one makes jokes or says outrageously silly things: everything that is said is done so relatively soberly – its humour is derived from the contexts in which these lines are delivered. And that can be problematic, because, unless one is attuned to the irony of situations or amused by how unusually out-of-place many of the elements are, then the picture is going to feel flat – there are no silly walks or pratfalls to be seen anywhere.
Ultimately, what the audience is treated to is a road trip that spirals out of control as Stimpson’s plan stops running like clockwork. From the moment that he misses his train (due to a simple misunderstanding), it all devolves into a series of unfortunate events and a minor comedy of errors. Not only does he have to make his way to the conference, which is a long drive away, but he ends up being chased by his spouse (in car filled with senile old ladies), Mr. Jolly (the afore-mentioned teacher), Laura’s parents and the police.
I get a real kick out of the sequence when Ms. Stimpson goes to pick up the old ladies for their day out while Mr. Stimpson is trying to find her. This was the perfect example of “timing is everything”, because he was always one step behind her or looking one way while she was passing by on the other side. What was terrific was the skill with which it was executed: there was this long one-take that required precision timing from all involved and it worked beautifully. I would love to know how many attempts they had to make to get that one in the can.
All this to say that ‘Clockwise’, even though it never rattled my ribcage with laughter, is a pretty good motion picture. It is droll to say the least, but it’s a more subtle piece than North American audiences are used to – so it may not be everyone’s cup of tea. It took me a while to get wise about it, and I suspect that this may apply to anyone who is expecting something more outrageously zany than it actually is. But, given the right set of expectations, it’s a crafty little film that’s worth savouring. I finally got it. It was about time.
Date of viewing: January 12, 2013