Holy Flying Circus - DVD Review

'The surreal decision to have Rufus Jones playing both Terry Jones and Palin’s wife at times feels like it pays off - Palin’s wife asking after Terry as “he’s my favourite” is a knowing nod to the fourth-wall-breaking of much of Python'

Writer Tony Roche is keen to constantly remind you that whilst Holy Flying Circus presents a dramatisation of a real event - namely the release of Monty Python’s Life Of Brian in 1979 and the religious hubbub which surrounded it - a lot of the material has no basis in history. It’s a choice which affords Roche plenty of comedic license in terms of the story he tells, but one which it’s hard not to feel in the end doesn’t do his film as many favours as the writer had hoped.

The film’s strongest sequence, in fact, focuses on the appearance of Michael Palin (Charles Edwards) and John Cleese (Darren Boyd) on chat show Friday Night, Saturday Morning to debate with the Bishop Of Southwark Mervyn Stockwood (Roy Marsden) and Christian journalist Malcolm Muggeridge (Michael Cochrane), which also happens to be the part of the film that is the most historically accurate. Aside from one obvious fantasy moment, director Owen Harris achieves a fantastic sense of authenticity during the chat show scenes whilst managing to make sure what appears in the film isn’t simply a carbon copy of the 1979 TV footage.

What much of Holy Flying Circus actually ends up as is a series of comedic hits and misses. The film’s two strongest assets are Edwards and Boyd as Palin and Cleese respectively, the former giving the most realistic (that is to say least caricatured) performance of any of the Python roles, channelling Palin wonderfully whilst making the character his own without ever becoming an impersonation. Boyd plays Cleese at the other end of the scale, his performance rooted in the actor’s Basil Fawlty persona, something which one of the more effective cutaway sequences confirms outright. This makes for a more exaggerated turn but one of both genuine comedic and uncanny transformative ability; Boyd is the only actor here you’ll find yourself at times forgetting isn’t a young incarnation of his respective Python. Performances for the remaining four members of the troupe boil down to impersonations ranging from the adequate but one-dimensional (Steve Punt’s take on Eric Idle) to the misjudged and unconvincing (Phil Nichol as Terry Gilliam).

The attempts at a Pythonesque style are just as uneven. For every idea that works, there’s another which falls flat. The surreal decision to have Rufus Jones playing both Terry Jones and Palin’s wife (as Terry Jones in drag) at times feels like it pays off - Palin’s wife asking after Terry as “he’s my favourite” is a knowing nod to the fourth-wall-breaking of much of Monty Python’s output - but at others feels like it’s simply there to garner cheap laughs beneath a film that, although not endorsed by Python, is overtly using the Python name. Subplots involving the creative team behind the chat show and a religious group preparing to protest against Life Of Brian’s release never manage to produce anything genuinely memorable, with the latter in particular falling back on tired humour (one member has Tourette’s syndrome, another a severe stammer) and only managing to stay afloat thanks to a reliably strong presence from Mark Heap.

Holy Flying Circus ultimately feels like a missed opportunity more than anything else. The relationships between the Monty Python members, particularly the controlling nature of Cleese, are focused on here and there but never to a satisfying degree. If Tony Roche had concentrated on effectively telling the story of Life Of Brian’s release - which would most likely be engaging enough as it is without a great deal of embellishment - instead of becoming so intent on packing his film with his own attempts at Pythonesque humour, then Holy Flying Circus could have become a must-see for any Python fan. As it is, whilst certainly worth a watch, too little here is likely to leave much of an impact, certainly never threatening to reach anywhere near the comedic heights of its focal sixsome.

By Ben Broadribb. Ben is a regular contributor to Film Intel, having previously written at Some Like It Hot Fuzz. He is normally seen in the wild wearing t-shirts containing obscure film references. He is a geek, often unashamedly so. He's also on and Twitter.

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