We’re reaching that time of year when Hollywood puts giant robots and superheroes to one side until next summer, and starts donning formal wear while everyone crosses their fingers for a taste of awards season gold. Film posters get dressed up for the season too, with plaudits from critics and phrases like “Based on a true story” and “The feel-good film of the year!”
While both are (to some extent) true of The Sapphires, a film acquired by the Weinstein Company after its out-of-competition premiere in Cannes, it’s also a film that’s been made without any of the post-acquisition pretensions that come with awards season. Actually, there’s little hype around it in that regard, beyond the positive word of mouth from which crowd-pleasing hits are made.
Beginning in 1968 in Cummeraganja, a tiny town in the Australian outback, Gail (Deborah Mailman) and Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) are two Aboriginal sisters who have sang together since childhood. They determinedly perform country and western music to indifferent white audiences as they try to get famous, while their younger sister, Julie (Jessica Mauboy) fumes about being told that she’s too young to join them.
Fortunately, all three of them are discovered by a drunken musician called Dave Lovelace, (Chris O’Dowd) who has somehow drifted from being a cruise ship entertainment manager to getting sozzled in the Outback. He persuades them to try singing American soul music, and redesigns them as Australia’s answer to The Supremes. Enlisting their estranged cousin, Kay, (Shari Sebbens) Dave and the girls go on the road for their first gig: entertaining American troops in Vietnam.
While the film isn’t an out-and-out musical, it does its due diligence on all of the musical sequences, with great choreography and performances from the talented leads. Chris O’Dowd delivers a monologue about the energy and temperament of singing soul, relatively early on, which resonates through the rest of the film whenever these ladies perform.
That early Oscar speculation, which can only have been stirred up by Harvey Weinstein’s name, is probably centred around O’Dowd’s performance. He’s proven to be an immensely likeable screen presence in the past, but The Sapphires might be an even bigger turning point for him than Bridesmaids, because he has so much more to do. He gives Dave more depth than the alcoholic Irish stereotype that he could’ve been.
Although O’Dowd is good enough here to have carried the film on his own, he’s essentially in a crucial supporting role to the four leading ladies. Writers Tony Briggs and Keith Thompson (the latter of whom has worked on the irresistibly barmy Australian kids’ show, Lockie Leonard) never lose sight of what makes each character distinctive, and there’s lots of mileage to be got out of the tension between Gail and Kay in particular.
Australian identity is intrinsic from the very start of the film, and although you don’t initially realise that it will manifest in this way, that tension becomes the main dramatic throughline. Kay has paler skin than her cousins, and her backstory, gradually realised as we traverse more dramatic terrain, puts her at odds with mouth-on-legs Gail. Deborah Mailman and newcomer Shari Sebbens are both great in these scenes, and it pushes the film into areas beyond the enjoyable fluff of which films like Mamma Mia are solely comprised.
That said, as a film that’s set alongside the Vietnam war, which also has a PG certificate, you should probably have figured out that it’s not Apocalypse Now. Although the film is great at broaching less lightweight subject matter as a means to make its characters three-dimensional, it occasionally overreaches. While wisely avoiding anything too political for the most part, there are a couple of missteps regarding historical context that don’t quite ring true. From the tone of the film, and the ‘feel-good’ plaudits, the feeling that everything will turn out to be all right is pretty much beyond reproach.
While issues of race and racism are addressed, The Sapphires resolutely keeps toes tapping throughout. That steady rhythm, characterised by great performances (especially from Chris O’Dowd) and a deft sense of humour, underscores any of its shortcomings, and compensates for any and all missteps. It’s hard to see how this hugely endearing film could fail to leave a smile on your face by the time the end credits roll.
The Sapphires is out in UK cinemas now.
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