While holidaying in Switzerland, a repressed Oxford don becomes romantically entangled with two young ladies.
Based on the life of Michael Palin's great-grandfather, American Friends casts the ex-Python as Francis Ashby, a Fellow of an Oxford college who, in the 1860s, encounters a pair of American ladies - free-thinking spinster Caroline (Booth) and her adoptive niece Elinor (Alvarado) - on a holiday in Switzerland and, when back in Oxford, finds himself torn between his desire to take over the presidency of the college and his even stronger desire not to be a bachelor all his life. The path of romance encounters several major obstacles, not the least being Ashby's inability to decide which of the ladies is the apple of his eye (you'll guess), although more concrete snakes-in-the-grass are a social climbing doctor (Alun Armstrong) intent on blackmailing his son's way into the university and a radical professor (Alfred Molina) who becomes Ashby's rival in love and for the presidency.
Although based on a true story, this seems a lot like a tertiary education re-make of the middle section of Goodbye Mr Chips, with the repressed and virginal schoolmaster drawn out of himself while on a continental holiday by the pretty ankles and neatly corseted waists of a pair of unconventional women. Pleasantly written and played, and directed in that kind of stuffy BBC British drama style that suggests why the film instinctively prefers classicist stick-in-the-mud Palin to Darwinist applecart-upsetter Molina, American Friends isn't really the stuff of the big screen, but is a perfectly acceptable, reasonably touching TV drama.
The setting and period encourage screenwriter Palin and director Powell to cast a clutch of distinguished British hams (Bryan Pringle, David Calder, Simon Jones, Jimmy Jewel, Robert Eddison) in stiff collars and thick false whiskers, and similarly prods the costumier into providing an array of huge dresses and rib-abusing bodices.
Has a genuinely pleasant Victorian feel, but it remains to be seen whether there's room for such a complacent cameo in the cinema of the '90s.