D: Andy Hamilton, Guy Jenkin / 95m
Cast: Rosamund Pike, David Tennant, Billy Connolly, Ben Miller, Amelia Bullmore, Emilia Jones, Bobby Smalldridge, Harriet Turnbull, Lewis Davie, Celia Imrie, Annette Crosbie
Doug and Abi McLeod (Tennant, Pike) are separated but have agreed to travel with their three children – Lottie (Jones), Mickey (Smalldridge) and Jess (Turnbull) – to his father Gordy’s 75th birthday party in Scotland. The reason for their going together is that Gordy (Connolly) has cancer and this birthday is likely to be his last. Doug and Abi are worried that their children will say something awkward about their marriage as no one is aware they’ve split up – not Gordy, or Doug’s brother Gavin (Miller) and his wife Margaret (Bullmore), who are organising the party. The tension between Doug and Abi – brought about by Doug having had a brief affair – is exacerbated by the long journey, but they all arrive in one piece.
Once at Gavin’s mansion home, the children spend time with Gordy while their parents get involved with the plans for the party. Gordy is fun-loving and free of the hang-ups that trouble his children and their wives, but his cancer medication is putting a strain on his heart, making hm more unwell than he’s letting on. On the morning of his birthday, Gordy opts to take the youngsters to the beach, much to the dismay of Gavin who wants the day to go perfectly (and without his father going AWOL). While they’re gone, Doug learns that Abi wants to move to Newcastle with the children; she’s found a new job there.
Down at the beach, the children have a great time with Gordy, who reveals that because of his Viking heritage – 84% – he’d like to have a Viking funeral. His idea is that it will stop the arguments between Gavin and Doug. A little while later, Gordy passes away on the beach; Lottie heads back to tell her parents but when she gets to the mansion she finds her parents arguing (and discovers her mother already has a lover). Dismayed to see that what Gordy has said about arguments is true, she goes back to the beach, where she and Mickey and Jess decide to honour Gordy in the best way they know: by giving him a Viking funeral.
While there’s nothing completely new about What We Did on Our Holiday – except for Gordy’s ultimate fate – it’s been put together and produced with a great deal of heart and soul. As a result it’s a wonderfully amusing, often laugh-out-loud movie that has enough joie de vivre to offset some of the more predictable moments, and when it ends leaves you wanting to spend just a little more time with the characters, and to find out how they move on.
Part of the charm of the movie is it’s lack of sentimentality around Gordy’s illness (and his eventual death), and the way in which it makes the children more assured than their parents. Gordy talks about his impending death as if it’s a great inconvenience, and the scene where he tells Lottie about it is touchingly and simply done (it’s probably the way we’d all like to tell someone). His illness is never allowed to assume too great an importance, except when it comes to the adults, and it’s a refreshing change to see children being treated as able to cope with such information and not be affected by it (too much at least). It’s also refreshing to see them make the kind of decision that most adults would probably balk at.
Of course, it helps when your writers and directors are the very talented Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin (perhaps best known for the UK TV series’ Drop the Dead Donkey and Outnumbered). They have a knack for assembling and examining dysfunctional families and making their quirks and foibles and peccadilloes so completely entertaining that you can’t help but laugh with the characters instead of at them. So true to life are their efforts it’s not too much to imagine a little girl who collects rocks and breeze blocks (Eric and Norman respectively), or a pre-teen who uses a notebook to keep track of all the lies her parents tell. Equally, the squabbles and the caustic comments that Doug and Abi regale each other with have that essence of truth that make them so recognisable and appropriately amusing.
With the material striking only the occasional false note – Lottie’s speech to the adults late on seems forced and too much like wish fulfilment, Celia Imrie’s child protection officer is an unnecessary attempt to add some drama – the cast are left to have a field day. It’s easy to see that they’ve had a great time, and it shows in the performances. Tennant and Pike have an easy confidence around each other and their scenes together sparkle with mischievous energy. Miller does po-faced with aplomb but makes Gavin more than just strait-laced and lacking in humour (there’s a great scene where Lottie, Mickey and Jess interrogate him about what he does for a living). Bullmore doesn’t have quite as much to do but Margaret has her own back story and “the incident” is one of the funniest sequences in the whole movie. And Connolly plays Gordy with just the right mixture of resignation and resistance towards his cancer, reining in his usual acerbic style in favour of a more sweet-natured, affectionate approach that pays off in dividends. But if the adult cast are all on top form, they’re still outshone, out-performed and upstaged by the trio of Jones, Smalldridge and Turnbull. They’re so relaxed and self-assured it’s a pleasure to watch them handle the variety of emotions they’re called on to carry off, and with as much of a mischievous energy as their older co-stars. Full marks to casting directors Briony Barnett and Jill Trevellick for finding them and bringing them together.
Full marks too to the location scout who found the area of Scotland where the movie was filmed – the scenery is simply breathtaking. Having such a beautiful backdrop makes the movie all the more pleasing to watch and the visuals are supported by an unobtrusive yet fitting score by Alex Heffes. And watch out for Wiggins the ostrich – he only makes an occasional fleeting – literally – appearance but it’s one more level of comic absurdity amongst a plethora that makes the movie so delightful.
Rating: 8/10 – a great comedy that overcomes several moments of déja vu and the occasional stumble to provide a marvellous comedy experience, What We Did on Our Holiday is full of charm and playfulness; splendidly rewarding, it will put a smile on your face and keep it there until the final credits.