Michael Palin of “Monty Python” fame stars in this sublimely comic and touching love story, loosely based on the travel diaries of his great-grandfather, an Oxford don who met two American women on a holiday in Switzerland and found his life changed forever. In the film, set in 1861, Palin plays Francis Ashby, a senior tutor in line for the job of college president. Ashby is merely being cordial when he meets Caroline Hartley (Connie Booth) and her eighteen-year-old ward, Elinor (Trini Alvarado), on a mountain walk. Later, he finds himself drawn to Elinor but does nothing, since even a hint of scandal could wreck his academic career.
Director Tristram Powell, who wrote the script with Palin, creates a rich, wry atmosphere. The actors bring a pungent spirit to their roles, notably Alfred Molina as Ashby’s rival and the indispensable Simon Jones, who invests his stuffy don with a wit that can switch from acid to clownish in a nanosecond.
But it’s the romance that lights the film. Ashby is stunned when the two Miss Hartleys visit him at Oxford. Caroline, movingly played by Booth, loves him. But Ashby can see only Elinor. Palin acts with remarkable delicacy and is matched by the striking Alvarado. “American Friends” offers no cheap jokes of the Woody-Soon-Yi variety, just a journey to another time done with fond humor and grace.