Picks and Pans Review: A Private Function

UPDATED 04/29/1985 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 04/29/1985 at 01:00 AM EDT

Maggie Smith and bathroom humor aren't the most likely matchup, but combining the two is only the most perverse of the many perverse notions that enliven A Private Function. This comedy has enjoyed a huge success in England, and that's no surprise: It joins the lunatic sensibility of a Monty Python sketch with the leering and scatological jokes of those West End comedies beloved by British theatergoers. Although it features Betty the Pig in a prominent role, what really distinguishes this film is its social conscience. Set in a small English town in 1947, it concerns the humiliations of post-war food shortages. Members of the upper crust of the town have hidden away their own "unlicensed" pig for a reception celebrating the marriage of Princess Elizabeth to Prince Philip. Their plans are thwarted by the town's timid chiropodist, Michael Palin, who accidentally discovers Betty. At the urging of his social-climbing wife, Maggie Smith—"It's not pork, Gilbert, it's power," she hisses—he steals the pig. Despite the gross-out nature of the movie, its real subject is not gluttony or even greed, but the prison of propriety. Written by Alan Bennett, who was part of the Beyond the Fringe comedy troupe, and directed by Malcolm Mowbray, this movie is as angry about the class struggle as any modern English drama, but seldom has indignation been so imaginatively packaged. Palin and Smith, who were well matched in The Missionary, again work together marvelously. His deadpan and her hauteur play off each other with the precision of a metronome. Smith also enjoys an inventive foil in Liz Smith, who plays her dotty mother. Maggie Smith beat out Shirley MacLaine for the British Academy Award with this performance, and she proves herself a high priestess of low comedy. No matter how outrageous the material gets, she never condescends to her character's provincialism, which is the soul of this satire. That is the ultimate perverse irony of A Private Function: By embracing the crassness of the material, Maggie Smith shows just how classy an actress she is. (R)

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