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The Holdovers review - a perfectly formed comedy that wears its perfection lightly | reviews, news & interviews

The Holdovers review - a perfectly formed comedy that wears its perfection lightly

The Holdovers review - a perfectly formed comedy that wears its perfection lightly

Director Alexander Payne gives Paul Giamatti another plum part

Class act: Dominic Sessa as Tully nd Paul Giamatti as HunhamUniversal

Twenty years ago Alexander Payne put Paul Giamatti on the map in Sideways; here he is again, as another punctilious expert, this time not in the field of viniculture but plain old culture, of the old-fashioned classical kind. And his adversary is not a roguish friend but a spiky pupil at the boys’ school in New England where he teaches classics.

It’s a masterclass in meshing screenwriting, acting, cinematography and music direction in a seamless blend. 

The script, by David Hemingson, takes an old trope – the curmudgeonly teacher versus the bright but wayward student – and gives it a new spin. It’s 1970, but Giamatti’s Paul Hunham is a disciplinarian who lives in a much older world. His idea of dinner-table small talk is the Third Punic War, and his conversation is laced with Latin tags. But he also believes Barton Academy boys should be treated alike, no matter how much money their rich parents have donated to the school. Numbskulls are numbskulls. Or, in his rich vocabulary, anything from “fetid layabouts” to “hormonal vulgarians” who are too thick “to pour urine out of a boot”. 

He loathes the boys’ sense of entitlement – when he hands back their exam papers on Pericles, with no grade above a B+ and most between C- and F-, one failing student responds, “But I am going to Cornell…”. Not on Hunham’s watch. No quarter is given, in the name of maintaining standards.

The source of his personal enmity towards these privileged boys eventually surfaces, but they are pretty objectionable types anybody might dislike – anybody except the principal of the school, who is still furious that Hunham refused to give a senator’s son the grade he needed to get into an Ivy League college. Exit pupil and his father’s deep pockets.

When Hunham is left supervising five boys over the Christmas break – the holdovers – he is thrown together with his B+ student, Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa), whose mother phones at the last minute to say he won’t be going on holiday in St Kitts with her as she and her new husband need some time alone. Tully is a skinny teenager with an odd sophistication and a cynical outlook on life. He and Hunham are further thrown together when the parent of one of the holdovers whisks all the boys away on a skiing trip, but not Tully, whose mother isn’t contactable to give permission. Which says a lot about the source of his cynicism.

Also left behind is Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph, pictured below with Dominic Sessa), the school’s black head cook, a single mother who is steeping herself in melancholy – and whisky – at losing her only son in Vietnam. Curtis’s uniformed portrait stares out disapprovingly from the school chapel as the chaplain delivers a peerlessly insincere sermon to the visiting parents and pupils. 

Hemingson’s screenplay slowly builds up a triptych of these three lost souls, each alone in the world but slowly finding some solace in each other’s company. Mary introduces Hunham to The Newlyweds Game on television; Hunham introduces Tully to good manners; Tully teaches him to bowl; both support Mary as her misery builds and spills over.  

Dominic Sessa and Da'Vine Joy Randolph in The HoldoversAll the while, the Vietnam War is like a warning foghorn in the background, the fate of all who don’t make it to college. That will include Tully, threatened with military school if he is suspended yet again. Hunham is vulnerable in his own way, his drinking steadily increasing, his personality unloved by all the other staff, who nickname him after his wall-eye. Only his colleague Miss Crane (Carrie Preston) is remotely kind to him.

The script is a cracker, full of wit and emotional intelligence, deftly plotted so it twists through multiple ironies on its way to a lovely denouement. But Payne has also given the main action a chorus, under musical director Mark Orton, that serves as a gently mocking commentary to it. Sometimes a well known song will lift a scene, as when Tully goes skating to the joyous accompaniment of Cat Stevens singing The Wind. But mostly, as the Swingle Singers vocalise White Christmas or Andy Williams insists “It’s the most wonderful time of the year”, the music is a sardonic reminder of the vast gap between the ersatz-comforting and real sadness. Orton accompanies the cheesy-listening sounds of the 1970s with his own music played on the “new” electric instruments of the time and recorded as mono audio. 

The visuals too are effortlessly period, wittily so from the outset. The signature of the BBFC President on the first title is John Trevelyan (who stepped down in July 1971), and the credits are just plain typefaces on monochrome backgrounds. Some productions draw attention to their period accuracy – you can almost feel the smugness of the props department at sourcing the right era of packaging for a well known product – but not this one. From Hunham’s no-frills bathroom to his cheap boxy car, everything seems to have just stepped out of this plausible yet far-off world. 

The role of Hunham brings out every colour in Giamatti’s palette, from the grotesquely humorous to the touching. He spits out his lines with relish, but always pulls back from caricature. (Though he and Payne have fun with teasing the audience as to which eye Tully – and we – should focus on, switching his wall-eye prosthetic from one side to the other). Sessa too takes his role far beyond your expectations, showing a mature understanding of this half-formed, foxily intelligent young man. 

For most of this December story, the little world of Barton is swathed in thick falling snow, a blanketing nothingness that recalls the gently melancholic terrain of Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea. But despite its characters’ many unhappinesses, it’s ultimately an upbeat piece about the power of friendship, ending with the same poignancy as Rattigan’s The Browning Version, but with a middle finger firmly raised at the forces of convention. Hunham is a fighter, ultimately as heroic in his odd way as his idols in Virgil. 

Hunham's idea of dinner-table small talk is the Third Punic War, and his conversation is laced with Latin tags


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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