Produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Mark Huffam,
Written by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, William Davis
Starring Rowan Atkinson, John Malkovich, Natalie Imbruglia, Ben Miller, Tim Piggott-Smith, Kevin McNally, Oliver Ford Davis, Douglas McFerran
“A brilliantly funny Clown for all Seasons”
Of all the main character types in film and other performance genres, the Clown is perhaps the only one permitted exemption from the usual requirements of the character arc. To satisfy an audience, heroes, heroines and villains must strive and develop through dealing with a variety of conflicts, obstacles, suffering and deprivation. By the end, some new realisation should be reached, some growth or lesson gained at least. While the Clown character may well do all the above, s/he is not necessarily required to do anything but remain a figure of fun. If s/he does learn something, it may well be of an appropriately simple nature, and the interaction is usually humorous. By definition the Clown is an unaware fool. Usually a person of little actual self-knowledge, he possesses delusions of his own abilities the façade of which he believes convinces everyone around him and which he takes pains to maintain.
The Clown represents the common man stripped bare of all but his self-conceit. We can both identify affectionately with his woes, and at the same be relieved that we are not so foolish as he. Secretly, we may even be glad of the lessons he illustrates, or ruefully recognise our own. Often the quintessential Clown is so foolish that s/he remains unaffected by tragedy in any lasting way – although, of course, there is a sub-type of sad clown that makes us laugh by being so morose.
The mythological counterpart of the Clown is the far more complex and amoral Trickster, whose function is change through the chaos principle. Like the Trickster, the Clown often succeeds where more serious efforts may fail. Superficial as froth, the quintessential Clown disarms gravity. By the end of the journey, when serious villains have been hoist by their own petard and the Clown’s well-intentioned and bumbling efforts have somehow achieved their aim despite him, our own load may be a little lighter. And while the Clown, despite the chaos he engenders all around him, may well have saved the day, he essentially remains his good-hearted, unknowing self (unlike the devilish Trickster, who transforms to become the Wise Fool). In this case, it is we who have been through the journey, and we who have changed.
Johnny English, like Rowan Atkinson’s other creation Mr Bean, is just such a quintessential Clown. In this movie he uses his marvellously rubbery face and body to play a very earnest and suave secret agent à la James Bond who has to save the Crown Jewels (no less) from being stolen by arch villain Pascale Sauvage (John Malkovich). The reason English – in the beginning very low on the secret agent food chain – gets this mission suggests some idiocy and incompetence in the British Secret Service itself. Blowing up all the secret agents in England (except English) as they dutifully attend the funeral of Agent One, despite it being “the most secure place in England”, is remarkably easy, but it gives Atkinson, with one movement of his eyes, an opportunity for a magnificently timed reaction.
Johnny English’s assistant is Bough, played with some anxiety by the excellent Ben Miller. Not exactly the straight man, Bough often gives what the audience’s reaction is to English. The humour in his character is from the fact that though he is probably smarter than his boss, he is bound by the hierarchical structure of the Service to do as he says, to cover up for his many mistakes and to try to prevent as many as he can. The scene in the cemetery where he extricates English from making a grave error is brilliantly funny and illustrates well how the dynamic between them works.
Beautiful pop-singer Natalie Imbruglia plays Agent Lorna Campbell completely straight, allowing Atkinson’s flamboyance full rein. Her natural Australian accent is part of her charm and her character also gives to a degree the audience reaction to English. The scene between Lorna and English where she tells him what he makes her feel like doing to him is a masterpiece of reversals of meaning, misunderstandings, expectations and disappointments. Atkinson’s face as he registers and responds to all of this is classic.
John Malkovich plays the French villain Pascale Sauvage who wants to claim the crown of
As usual with Rowan Atkinson’s farcical parodies sight gags are in abundance as are misunderstandings and the consequences of unconscious actions to which the audience is privy but the characters are not. There is some (literal) toilet humour of a gross kind that is the one thing that probably should have been omitted. The title song by Robbie Williams “A Man for All Seasons” is suitably bright and Bondesque and the “Johnny English Theme” performed by the appropriately named, sexy, all-female violinist group Bond is a wonderful note on which to end this very funny movie.
© Avril Carruthers 8th April 2003
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