It takes a certain kind of passion (or is it insanity?) to drag your daughter half way across the country to sit outside and watch something that you can see for next to nothing on Netflix in your own home, sat in your favourite armchair. However, the snaking queues edging their way into London’s magnificent Somerset House on Sunday night gave me the succour to realise that even if I was crazy, at least I was was in like-minded company.
This is the fifteenth year of Film4’s innovative screening seasons at this beautiful 16th Century London landmark, which has become a major highlight in the capital’s movie-fan calendar. As well as screening favourite classics and recent hits, Film4 at Somerset House plays host to Premieres and Q&As (Glenn Close and Sir Michael Caine wowed the crowds last year). Earlier this month Pedro Almodovar’s Pain & Glory made its UK bow here with Antonio Banderas and Penelope Cruz in attendance.
I was consumed by a brief attack of dizzying euphoria when I spotted The Princess Bride announced among the slate of this year’s selection. By the time I had composed myself, I had already reserved two seats and booked a pair of train tickets. The logical voice in my brain that would normally have insisted that for the same money, I could buy Rob Reiner’s entire 1980s filmography on BluRay, was nowhere to be heard.
For The Princess Bride is not just any film – determinedly NOT just your basic, average, everyday, ordinary, run-of-the-mill, ho-hum fairy tale – it a miraculous one. Adapted by William Goldman from his own novel, which he had written for his daughters back in the 1970s, and directed by Rob Reiner in the middle of perhaps the greatest directorial winning streak of the 1980s, The Princess Bride is the result of dozens of immense talents playing their A-game.
Vibrating with old-school Hollywood charm, buckling swash that would have made Errol Flynn proud, it was also suffused with late 20th century postmodernist sophistication and irreverence. What makes it so perfect (and it is perfect) is just how far all its many component elements are taken to the point where they could overwhelm the others, before being held back. The moving parts in this film work together like a Ferrari engine.
The humour verges on Pythonesque but never tips over into fourth-wall breaking snark; the action is played feather-light, but choreographed to within an inch of its life. It wears the cloak of light indifference but privately takes everything deathly seriously. It thrives with the group-confidence that is only possible when the ground work has been laid by a master – in this case Goldman, one of the greatest scriptwriters of the 20th century (and of all his great works, this was his favourite by a country mile).
As the sky darkened above the courtyard of Somerset House and DJ Chaka Khan’t wrapped up her 1980s themed set, the picnickers poured themselves another glass of something and the film began. Immediately there was a sense that we were all about to fall in love again. Few there would have been old enough to see it on the big screen when it first came out in 1987 – this was one of those classic 1980s cases of a film being overlooked at the cinema then being rediscovered on VHS.
At Wesley and Buttercup’s first kiss, the screen became aflame with a high-definition sunset as Mark Knopfler’s score swelled out of the speakers, and as if summoned by the snap of Rob Reiner’s fingers, an almost-full moon appeared above us. It’s as we wished, and more.
The audience cheered when Mandy Patinkin finally got to deliver his memorised soliloquy of vengeance to Christopher Guest’s Count Rugen. They laughed every time Wallace Shawn said ‘Incontheivable’ and laughed even harder when Billy Crystal’s Miracle Max appeared – ‘He’s dead.’ ‘I’ve seen worse.’ As we all did back in the late 80s, we all fell in love with Robin Wright once more afresh, and as one we all muttered to ourselves, ‘How the hell did they do that bit where they climb the rope up the Cliffs of Insanity?’
I was 13 when I first saw The Princess Bride on a rather small TV plugged into a VHS player that weighed more than a piano. My daughter is 13 now and has just fallen for The Princess Bride along with a few thousand fans at Somerset House. Who knows where she’ll take her 13 year old kids to see it, but when they do see it, it won’t have aged a day.
The Film4 Somerset House Summer Screen season continues until August 21st, concluding with the UK premiere of reggae documentary Inna De Yard. For more information go to https://www.somersethouse.org.uk/whats-on/film4-summer-screen