Columbia sold this as if Nancy Kwan was a Bond girl with massive images of the star in a bikini (see above) – the advert in the trade magazine comprised a drop-down A2 pull-out i.e. three times the size of a normal page. But anyone expecting a salacious time would have been in for surprise. For although Kwan swam underwater during the credits (not Helen Mirren style as in The Age of Consent, 1969) and did reveal a naked posterior, you could not have imagined a more innocent, joyous, movie.
Tahitian teenager Tamahine (Nancy Kwan) wreaks havoc on the British stiff upper lip when after the death of her father she is sent to the all-male English public school run by his cousin Poole (Dennis Price), a widower. But it’s not a sex comedy with all the misunderstandings and double entendres that genre normally entails. Instead, it’s a clash of cultures, free love and expression versus prudery and repression. Poole has trouble enough on the female front, his daughter Diana (Justine Lord) inclined to enjoy a gin-soaked afternoon and in the middle of an affair with art master Clove (Derek Nimmo).
Without mischievous intent, Tamahine causes chaos, assuming an artist’s model would be naked she scandalizes the petrified Clove and egged on by a gaggle of schoolboys whose hormones are off the scale she jams a chamber pot on the school weather vane. The plot, if there is one, is mostly Tamahine fending off suitors, Clove and Poole’s son Richard (John Fraser), and attempting to persuade Poole to take a paternal interest in her well-being.
But mostly it’s about how a sweet-hearted woman struggles to survive in a world where attitudes to sex remain Victorian and in which the avowed aim of education is to build character through manly pursuits such as beating the living daylights out of each other rather than teaching them to express emotion. And certainly the movie takes a more benevolent view of public schools than the later, brutal, If…(1968).
While endorsing free love, Tamahine draws the line at crossing the line in the matter of Richard, whom she deems a relation, no matter how distant. Challenging all conventions, she takes part in sports day.
But the comedy is so gentle and Tamahine so charming that this is best described as a delight. I found myself chuckling throughout and I felt I had just watched a genuine feel-good movie. On paper it certainly doesn’t sound so potentially good, especially when you consider the clichéd portrayals you might expect from the supporting cast, but in reality it exerts an extraordinary appeal.
Hardly off-screen, Kwan (The World of Suzie Wong, 1960), in only her fourth film, easily carries the movie as if she scarcely felt the weight of stardom on her shoulders and is a revelation as the imparter of tender wisdom. What aids the film enormously is that Dennis Price and Derek Nimmo play more interesting parts than their movie personas suggest. Price (Tunes of Glory, 1960), in a far cry from his Ealing comedy heyday, dispenses with his wry delivery and cynical demeanor. Unusual for a character actor, his character actually has a story arc and turns what could have been a stereotypical role into a moving performance. Before his strangulated vowels got the better off him, Derek Nimmo (The Liquidator, 1965), too, delivers probably his best performance.
Justine Lord (Night after Night after Night, 1969) is good as the rebellious daughter but James Fox offers none of the intensity he brought to the screen a year later in The Servant (1964) and neither does John Fraser (El Cid, 1961) light up the screen. In small parts you can spot Michael Gough (Batman, 1985) and Coral Browne (The Killing of Sister George, 1968).
Full marks to director Philip Leacock (The War Lover, 1962), himself a former public school boy, for not taking the easy way out with loutish comedy but instead crafting a film full of sensitivity and sensibility. Denis Cannan (Why Bother to Knock, 1961) based his screenplay on the Thelma Nicklaus novel.
You might be surprised at the four-star rating and I do confess it is a shade optimistic but it is worth more than three stars. It’s worth taking a moment to examine the whole issue of ratings. You might be asking how can Tamahine be given four stars, the same as The Sleeping Car Murders and a tad below the five-star award given to They Shoot Horses, Don’t They. The answer is I compare like with like. If the best films in your opinion must concern social comment or excel technically, then there will be little place in your world for a sheer confection like Tamahine. But if you watch a wide variety of films and recognize those that contain a high enjoyment factor then you will want to draw attention to such. Hence, the rating.
It’s true that sometimes we do want movies to tackle difficult issues or take us into other worlds, but other times there is nothing to beat an old-fashioned good-hearted picture like this.