D: Gillies MacKinnon / 98m
Cast: Gregor Fisher, Eddie Izzard, Sean Biggerstaff, Kevin Guthrie, Ellie Kendrick, Naomi Battrick, Michael Nardone, James Cosmo, Fenella Woolgar, Brian Pettifer, Iain Robertson, Anne Louise Ross
During World War II, on the remote Scottish island of Todday, a terrible thing happens to the residents: they run out of whisky. With rationing in force, and the chances of the island being resupplied looking far from likely, the inhabitants – well, mostly the men – soon fall into despair. Forced to make do with tea, their spirits appear broken, with even the arrival home of Sergeant Odd (Biggerstaff), and the prospect of a wedding between postmaster’s daughter Catriona Macroon (Kendrick) and teacher George Campbell (Guthrie), failing to interest them.
Salvation arrives in the form of an unexpected shipwreck, when the SS Cabinet runs aground a short way from shore. The crew manage to get off the stranded vessel and head for Todday; as they do so, they let on to some of the islanders who have come out to help them, that their cargo included fifty thousand cases of whisky bound for America. News of this windfall reaches the rest of the island and plans are put in motion immediately to recover as many cases as possible before the ship sinks for good. But the small matter of it being the Sabbath day means the islanders have to wait twenty-four hours before they can put their rescue plan into operation.
During this time, Catriona’s sister, Peggy (Battrick) renews her acquaintance with Sergeant Odd and romance quickly blossoms; her father learns that the SS Cabinet was carrying other valuable cargo that must be retrieved; Home Guard leader, Captain Waggett (Izzard), determines that he should prevent any looting; and George Campbell does battle with his strict Calvinist mother (Ross) over her refusal to acknowledge his impending marriage to Catriona. And a mysterious man called Brown (Nardone) takes an interest in the wreck that arouses suspicion of his motives for being on the island. The whisky is saved (and with it the island), and all that remains is for the islanders to find as many hiding places as they can for it, while Captain Waggett makes it his personal mission to find those many hiding places and confiscate all the whisky…
The first reaction upon hearing that someone has gone ahead and produced a remake of a movie that is a bona fide classic – and a bona fide Ealing classic at that – may well be one of complete and utter disbelief. Such news may also provoke feelings of horror and revulsion; after all these years (and the original was released in 1949), to do so may well be thought of as tantamount to sacrilege, or at the very least, just plain unnecessary. The Coen brothers tried the same thing with their version of The Ladykillers (2004), and now it’s generally regarded as one of their poorer efforts. But at least that remake had a touch of the bizarre about it, a sensibility that was far removed from that of Ealing Studios when they made the 1955 original. Here, there’s nothing out of the ordinary to make the movie stand out, and despite the makers’ intention to make a “modern interpretation” of Alexander Mackendrick’s masterful comedy, they hew too closely to the style of the original for that to be true.
What this all amounts to is a movie that is a pale shadow of its former incarnation, and a project that should have remained in the development hell that it was rescued from a few years ago. In the hands of director MacKinnon and screenwriter Peter McDougall, this “modern interpretation” lacks all the requisite energy needed to engage with an audience, and much like last year’s other reboot of an English comedy classic, the execrable Dad’s Army, fails at the one thing it should be doing above all else: making its audience laugh. Like the island without its whisky, the movie is a dry, barren experience where the most that any unlucky and/or unprepared viewer can hope for is a wry smile or a short chuckle. The humour should be built into the storyline, but you have to search long and hard for it, and after a while the feeling takes hold that you’re searching in vain.
It’s a strange realisation to make. It’s not as if the cast isn’t already well versed in the art of making people laugh. Fisher is better known as Rab C. Nesbitt, the alcoholic Glaswegian and self-confessed “sensitive big bastard”. But as Macroon the island postmaster, Fisher is restrained by a role that requires him to be avuncular and quietly persevering, while all around him get to explore a wider range of emotions and character arcs. It’s as if the producers’ cast him in the role without any real appreciation of his skills as a comic actor. Instead of being at the fore, he’s too often reduced to playing second fiddle or fading into the background. And then there’s Eddie Izzard, a comedian who can take the most mundane of topics and reduce audiences to tears with his inspired musings on said topics. But if you didn’t know about his career, and how good he is as a stand-up comedian, then seeing Izzard in this would prompt most people to ask, what’s so special about him? And they would be right, because in this, Izzard just isn’t funny. Instead he’s set adrift in a sea of humdrum material and there’s no sign of land to spur him on.
In the end it’s McDougall’s bland, pedestrian script that lets him down, allied with MacKinnon’s inability to instill any energy into the proceedings. This leaves Whisky Galore! relying unhealthily on some unexpected delights, chief of which is Fenella Woolgar’s terrific performance as Captain Waggett’s wife, Dolly. Dolly is a woman whose understanding of the islanders exceeds her husband’s, and who offers up the kind of observations that only someone who retreats often into her own world could come up with. But alas, Woolgar isn’t on screen very often, and the movie plods along in neutral for much of its running time, so much so that it becomes an endurance exercise: can you make it to the end without losing the will to watch? It’s a close one, but this really isn’t a movie to start watching when you’re really tired and sleep is the better option.
Perhaps remakes shouldn’t be attempted unless something really new or different can be brought to the project, something that’s able to stop audiences from reflecting on the strengths of an older, more well regarded movie and judging the newer version accordingly. However, this definitely isn’t one of those occasions, and though there’s a clear improvement afforded by seeing some truly beautiful Scottish scenery in colour, it’s not enough to overcome the movie’s deficiencies in pretty much every other department. When the movie you’re remaking is an acknowledged classic, and you don’t employ your A-game, then this is the likely result: a movie that could stand as the dictionary definition of tedious.
Rating: 3/10 – whatever ambitions its makers had for it, Whisky Galore! lacks the wherewithal to achieve them, and the entire cast (bar the delightful Woolgar) look as if they’d rather be doing anything else, anywhere else; woeful in the way that only modern British comedies can be, this is a remake that serves no other purpose than to remind viewers just how good the 1949 version is.