Oldie-readers will know the original grumpy classics master – Andrew Crocker-Harris in The Browning Version, Terence Rattigan’s wonderful 1948 play, later made into films starring Michael Redgrave (1951) and Albert Finney (1994).
The hard shell of ‘the Crock’ – aka ‘the Himmler of the Lower Remove’ – is cracked when a pupil gives him Robert Browning’s translation of Aeschylus’s Agamemnon.
The masterstroke of David Hemingson, writer of The Holdovers, is to set the Crock’s story at Christmas and give it the feel of A Christmas Carol. Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti) is the Crock character at Barton, a preppy New England school, in 1971.
My god, Paul Giamatti does a brilliant job – the height of tragicomedy – as the washed-up teacher, sipping Jim Beam, smoking a pipe, depressed at his dim pupils, with a lazy eye and a fishy strain of BO. The eternal bachelor, he takes solace in tweed, corduroy, a selection of bow ties and a deep love for Greek and Latin.
Just like the Crock, he is the brightest master at the school. Just like the Crock, he is passed over for preferment. And so it’s Hunham who has the grim task of looking after the ‘holdovers’ – the boys who stay over at Barton through the Christmas holidays.
When the thicker and odder holdovers are whisked off by a rich father to a skiing resort, Hunham is left with just one boy – Angus Tully (Dominic Sassa), a poor little rich kid with a dead father and a mother more interested in spending Christmas with her rich new husband.
The party is completed by the black school cook, Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph). Her son, who was at Barton on a scholarship, has just been killed in Vietnam.
And so the scene is set for a catastrophically miserable Christmas for the three misfits. Angus Tully is a fine study in the tricky schoolboy, his sarcastic barbs to Hunham a thin veil for his unhappiness with the world.
Mary Lamb is a subtle mouthpiece for class and race problems in 1970s America – the broke, bereaved mother who has to wait on the spoilt jeunesse dorée of the Eastern Seaboard.
The three of them grow closer as they take a trip to Boston and find out the real story of Tully’s father (no plot-spoilers here). That warming-up of the Crock and his two companions could all be very clichéd – but the resolution of the film doesn’t turn out to be happily Dickensian for all three Bob Cratchits.
Hemingson and director Alexander Payne (who worked with Giamatti on Sideways (2004)) are too original for that. Instead, they create an exceptional story: funny, tear-jerking, drenched with melancholy and the sympathy we feel for the tricky adolescent years and the disappointments we hit in middle age.
No film has ever depicted so well the touching, non-sexual friendships that can develop between teachers and pupils.
Giamatti makes this one of the best films of the last ten years. With the tiniest screwing-up of his odd eyes – or his nerdy running style, with the knees raised too high – he makes you laugh without saying a word. And, when he does say something, he can inject humour or sadness with the tiniest inflection.
His schoolmaster persona is so layered and self-aware that his transformation – from grumpy old man to empathetic charmer – is entirely convincing. The brilliant, kind man was always there under the desperate, vinegary carapace.
Sessa looks a little gauche by comparison – but who wouldn’t, next to Giamatti? And, in any case, is there any creature more gauche than the awkward teenager trying to be a cool grown-up?
The film is so well done that even the Greek on Hunham’s blackboard has the accents in the right place. Pedants will be disappointed – everything is spot-on. The 1971 setting is perfectly caught, from the bright, tawdry clothes to the colour-saturated quality of the film stock.
The only blunder is that in Britain this great Christmas film is coming out only now (in America it was released in time for Christmas). But even that doesn’t matter – this wonderful movie transcends the seasons.