Blightyvision: Holy Flying Circus

Directed by Owen Harris
Written by Tony Roche
Starring Darren Boyd, Charles Edwards, and Rufus Jones

Imagine you grew up on Monty Python.  (If you’re reading these reviews, odds are you did.)  Now imagine someone has come to you telling you that there’s been a humorous documentary made about the group, with six modern actor/comedians — most of whom you’ve likely never heard of — doing their best impressions of the boys.  Odds are your feelings would be about as mixed as mine were.  Could be awesome, could be awful, but somewhere in the back of your mind is that little voice that holds all Python works far more sacred than they ever did — the same one that pestered you before Abrams’s Star Trek — telling you it’s going to be painful and you’re just not going to like it, so there.

In this case, you can pat that little voice on the head, give it a cookie, and send it off to worry about the Jem reboot intsead.

Holy Flying Circus starts out by warning you that the majority of it is highly inaccurate — and given the heightened characterizations of the Pythons and sideways drifts into dream sequences and skits, it likely is.  However, it is centered around the very real circumstances surrounding the British premiere of Life of Brian, culminating in a heated debate on the chat show “Friday Night, Saturday Morning.”  The central figure is Michael Palin (Edwards of “Murder Rooms”), generally considered to be the “nicest” of the group, with John Cleese (Boyd of the recently-reviewed “Whites”) as a near second.  The two would end up representing the Pythons in the debate, and they do the same through the movie as a whole.  Rufus Jones, Steve Punt, Tom Fisher, and Phil Nichol (as Terry Jones, Eric Idle, Graham Chapman, and Terry Gilliam respectively) become more of a supporting cast, though Jones can also be seen in traditional Python drag as Palin’s wife.

The film really is made in the Monty Python style in many respects, and includes animation stemming from a giggly Gilliam diving for magazine cuttings upon hearing something funny, “let’s go there”-esque skits, and supporting roles being played by the main six.  A handful of the cutaway scenes drift into more modern references and commentary (including an angry Python fan nitpicking the script and a round of black box puppetry gone awry).  And yes, there are self-referential moments for fans to giggle at.  Fortunately, it is not reliant on these things so much as willing to use them if the situation warrants.

Overall, the first half of Holy Flying Circus is as silly and snarky and absurd as one would expect, and I spent a lot of my time marveling at how uncanny the actors’ performances were, right down to the voices.  Then comes the second half, and I don’t care who you are or what you think you were watching — you do not expect the turn it takes.

As the debate approaches, things become very thoughtful, very real, and very serious, to the point that even Edwards playing Palin playing Palin’s mother doesn’t really hit you as hard as it might otherwise.  The debate itself is a bang-on recreation, and Edwards and Boyd both nail the pair’s mix of frustration and admirably constrained anger.  You can feel, and realize very late in the game, that this was the point the whole movie was leading up to, and even with a handful of humorous Pythonesque cutaways, it does not lose any of its sudden unexpected seriousness.  It’s been a long, long time since I’ve watched a performance in a comedy with proper silent awe.  But that scene, and the scenes it was couched in, were — been a long time since I could say this honestly in a review — perfect.

Add to all that a really rather great cameo (which I shall not spoil), and I’m left in the very awkward reviewer-ly position of not being able to balance out my review with anything negative.  Okay, maybe Phil Nichol was a bit overly disturbing as Gilliam … but then again, Gilliam himself is overly disturbing so I guess I’ve got nothing.

If you are a Python fan, I cannot recommend Holy Flying Circus highly enough.  If you have fannish fears, put them aside for an hour and a half.  You will regret nothing.  It will likely also behoove you to watch the original debate, though whether you do so before or after really doesn’t matter.

John Cleese apparently did not like Holy Flying Circus.  But he doesn’t like anything.  The movie said so.

Posted on November 17, 2011 at 01:00 by Kara Dennison · Permalink
In: Columns, Television: British and Canadian · Tagged with: , ,