As the child stars of BBC One’s Outnumbered grow older and thus less deserving of our attention, series creators Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin have come up with an elegant and surprising solution to what surely must be a high demand at BBC Films for their show to follow Mrs Brown and The Inbetweeners from small screen acclaim to big box office returns.
While we bade farewell to the Brockmans at the end of the 2014 series, Hamilton and Jenkin’s début feature, What We Did On Our Holiday, looks for all the world to be re-fitting their dysfunctional family shtick for the big screen. That it actually turns out to be something more unexpected might be worth the price of admission alone.
Abi and Doug McLeod (Rosamund Pike and David Tennant) are trying to sugar-coat the circumstances of their impending divorce for the sake of their three kids, but everyone’s picking up on their strained relationship. It’s not the best idea then, for the family to drive up to Scotland from London.
However, fearing that Doug’s ebullient father Gordie (Billy Connolly) might not be long for this life, they take the kids to hang out with their granddad on the occasion of his 75th birthday party. Further arguments erupt when the London McLeods’ arrival interferes with the best-laid plans of Doug’s busybody brother Gavin (Ben Miller) and the bickering amongst the grown-ups only intensifies from there.
With a more pragmatic attitude to his twilight years, Gordie relishes the opportunity to bond with his grand-kids and share the benefits of his wisdom with them when it comes to matters of life, love, death and Viking customs and it’s in this regard that the film really sings.
Hamilton and Jenkin must really have the magic touch when it comes to picking out child actors. It would really be very easy for their characters to come off as overly precocious or scripted, but as in Outnumbered, the young trio feel incredibly natural on screen. Emilia Jones, who will be known to fans of Channel 4’s Utopia as the traumatised Alice Ward, provides a stalwart emotional core to contrast with the more eccentric performances by her screen siblings, who get most of the big laughs.
Even better, they all have Billy Connolly to bounce off of. The Big Yin is on top form here, at once convivial and reassuring, bringing both tremendous emotional heft and an instant, magical chemistry with the three young leads.
However, without giving too much away, the logline for this film should probably be very different. Pike and Tennant are present throughout, but “a couple tries to hide their impending divorce from their kids” pretty much gets blown out of the water, courtesy of an extremely ballsy tonal shift at the midpoint.
If we were to tell you what that logline would be, you’d probably be thinking of a much darker comedy, but the consistent lightness of touch turns out to be the making of this one. As delightful as the performers are, the film seldom rises above straightforward sitcom setpieces until quite a way into the running time, but once Hamilton and Jenkin show their hand, it turns into a doozy.
The effect of maintaining such a delicate balance of light, gentle comedy and wildly macabre subject matter means that it can never get darker than it is at the midpoint.
On the downside, this does make the broad strokes and sparsity of the supporting characters look quite ill-thought-out. With due credit to Miller’s performance, Gavin is an ogre in the least funny way, utterly ignorant of his long-suffering wife’s serious troubles and bullying his painfully shy son terribly. Once that self-imposed bottom is set, there’s little choice but to disregard the severity of his character on the incline to more comedic setpieces.
On the other hand, it’s the unusual structure that makes What We Did On Our Holiday one of the more surprising films of the year. Calling it ‘surprising’ isn’t the same as saying it’s a great comedy, but seeing as how we go into most films knowing exactly what to expect from total trailer saturation, the marketing folks behind this one deserve some kudos for pulling a fast one on us.
Plus, the unusual structure lets the directors get away with a quite impressive bit of tonal shifting that still feels entirely in keeping with Outnumbered‘s sense of humour. Some would have blanched at making this anything other than either a wild farce or a much darker comedy, but it’s in that mid-ground, where other comedy directors may fear to tread, that Hamilton and Jenkin thrive.
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