An ambitious couple and a V.I.P. (Very Important Pig) collide in this outrageous comedy of manners!
During a time of extreme food rationing in England following World War II, one town’s upper class bends the rules by illegally fattening a prize pig for a feast to celebrate the upcoming royal wedding. When a timid foot doctor (Michael Palin, A Fish Called Wanda) and his bossy wife (two-time Academy Award winner Maggie Smith, A Room With A View) get wind of the plan, they seize the chance to climb the social ladder by kidnapping the pig…who has a few unpleasant surprises of its own in store. One of the most hilarious, critically-acclaimed British cult comedies of all time, this star-packed satire proves some people will truly do anything to get ahead!
eyelights: Michael Palin. Maggie Smith. Liz Smith. Denholm Elliott. the post-WWII setting.
eyesores: the too-subtle humour.
“In Westminster Abbey tomorrow morning, a young couple are getting married of a purity and a nobility scum like you just can’t comprehend.”
‘A Private Function’ is a BAFTA award-winning film featuring Michael Palin and Maggie Smith (in their second pairing after ‘The Missionary‘). It was produced and released in 1984, also by HandMade films, a company formed by, and then-owned, by George Harrison (who put it together to make Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian‘).
It is set in a small English town in 1947. Britain was still under imposed rationing at the time, and the film begins with stock footage of the bulletins being shown in cinemas to inform the population of these changing limits. At the start of the picture, bacon has been halved and a week’s food supply was spare indeed.
Our main protagonist is Gilbert Chilvers, a chiropodiatrist who is trying to set up his own shop. When we meet him, he works out of his well-to-do clients’ homes. That’s how he gets wind of a pork smuggling operation, which will eventually lead him to trying to steal an unlicensed pig from a few wealthy men to feed his spouse and her mom.
Meanwhile, he has to contend with the aspirations of his spouse, Joyce, who feels that she is in a social freefall and would like to rejoin the upper class. And there’s the small matter of the Teflon-coated meat inspector who is determined to unearth all the contraband pork in the region and arresting the law-breakers – thereby causing Gilbert further grief.
‘A Private Function’ was written by Alan Bennett, who had written ‘Pleasure at Her Majesty’s’ and would receive much attention for ‘The Madness of King George’, in his big-screen debut. It was also scored by John Du Prez, who would become a frequent Python collaborator over the years. Besides Michael Palin, there are no other Pythons in this picture.
Palin was quite excellent as Gilbert. One may not realize this, based on the silly characters he frequently portrays, but he’s a very good straight man, being sober and sympathetic at once. Maggie Smith is superb as Joyce, making her proper, demanding, and yet so very desperate; we feel her pain at the same time as we chuckle at the irony.
The rest of the cast is also terrific. Liz Smith (no relation) is very droll as Joyce’s childlike mother, and Denholm Elliott (who co-starred with Palin and Smith in ‘The Missionary’) imbues his antagonist with just enough spite to make him effective. Richard Griffiths and Bill Patterson are also pretty good in their respective roles.
Palin was the key attraction for me, of course, but I had read some very good reviews of the film before seeking it out. Having just watched ‘The Missionary’ and appreciating it more than I’d ever had before, I thought I’d give it a chance even if the DVD’s cover art featured a big pig – hardly an inspiration or a sign of promise.
I did enjoy it, but found it dryer than anticipated, although I should have known better since its sibling was as well. It was apparently made in the Ealing Comedy tradition (of which I am not particularly cognizant, having only seen ‘The Ladykillers‘): rooted in social commentary and pitting underdogs against more powerful forces.
I think that this multi-layered look at society is what appealed to me the most. As heartbreaking as it was to see Gilbert’s efforts being hampered by the wealthy out of mere contempt, the picture delivers a sharp, satirical look at the era’s class struggles, something that one can hardly imagine in this day and age, and giving it a particular flavour.
Although I didn’t laugh nearly as much as I would have liked to, at least the film wasn’t vacuous. And it did have a few refreshing moments, such as Joyce’s ruminations about her social status or Gilbert’s awkward attempts to steal -and then conceal- the large swine. Plus which there were probably a lot of subtleties that were lost in translation.
So, would I recommend ‘A Private Function’? It won awards for a reason: it is a quality picture on all counts. However, one has to be predisposed to enjoying nuanced humour mixed with grim period drama to truly savour it. People expecting a rousing comedy should look elsewhere. This ‘Function’ is not for all tastes.
Date of viewing: January 12, 2013