Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin have recycled their winning formula for BBC smash-hit comedy, Outnumbered, by partnering two normal-ish parents with three outrageously sharp children, but this time it’s for the big screen. What emerges is a buoyant, credible venture with a good heart and far more laughs than you might expect. Somehow, with little struggle, What We Did On Our Holiday stops itself from trickling over the wrong side of sentimental drool and develops with surprising maturity.
As with Outnumbered, the adult actors learn a script and the child actors are given last-minute sketches about how the scene is going to play out. If there’s ever been a film to demonstrate the erratic and uncharted unpredictability of a child’s mind, it’s this one. Rosamund Pike and David Tennant are Abi and Doug McLeod, a couple whose marriage has reached the end of its tether. They’re always arguing, one of them has had an affair, and now they live in separate houses. Their three children, Lottie, Mickey, and Jess (played with comic bravado by Emilia Jones, Bobby Smalldridge, and Harriet Turnbull, respectively), are aware of the impending divorce, and each seem to be affected by it in bizarre and troubling ways. Jess’ two best friends are a rock and a brick, and she frequently resorts to holding her breath if things don’t go her way; Mickey is obsessed with Viking culture and Norse mythology; and Lottie keeps a private notebook of her thoughts and feelings, including all the lies she’s supposed to be maintaining for her family.
When we meet the McLeods, they are bracing themselves for a trip to Scotland to celebrate the 75th birthday of Doug’s father, Gordie (a reflective Billy Connolly). Gordie has terminal cancer and isn’t expected to last much longer. He’s currently staying with his son – Doug’s brother – Gavin (Ben Miller) and his wife, Margaret (Amelia Bullmore) in Gavin’s lavish mansion in the Scottish Highlands. Gavin has spared no expense organising a huge party for Gordie, and it’s clear that there’s a tense rivalry between Gavin and Doug, perhaps because of money, but more likely because Gavin gives the impression that his life is simply in much better shape than his brother’s. But there’s a catch. As if getting their three wayward children into the car for the painfully long journey wasn’t enough, Doug and Abi have enlisted their youngsters to cooperate in a little white lie with them. In order to steer clear from any possible upset on Gordie’s last birthday, they don’t want to tell him about their separation. The idea is to appear as a solid couple and family unit for the duration of the stay, and so the children – for once – must try to keep their mouths zipped tightly shut.
As is always the way, nobody in the family ever listens to the children. They look with innocent eyes as their feuding parents go to war against one another and their dysfunctional family collapses around them. Though separated by some seventy years, only Gordie, carefree and wild in spirit, listens to the children. Only he speaks their pure and simple language. He feels able to confide his own existential fears in their sweet and humble nature. The children don’t need to be patronised or ignored, they just need to be listened to (or allowed to drive the car…). It’s a cheesy message, but Connolly handles a very long and hammy scene with the children on a beach with impressive stamina, bestowing touching (and often vulgar) words of wisdom to his grandchildren, such as “you need to live more and think less”. The kids just want to have fun. They just want to see their family enjoy each other’s company. It soon becomes apparent that the wisecracking and impulsive children may be a huge liability to the whole scheme of hiding their parents’ secrets, but they’re also the best chance of salvaging their crumbling family unit.
Hamilton and Jenkin know that they’re not dealing with the most original of concepts, but that’s okay. The film is in the safe hands of Pike (who has just done the best work of her career in Gone Girl) and Tennant (who is surprisingly strong as a delicate father), but it is Billy Connolly who emerges as the scene-stealer playing the devil-may-care grandfather. Gordie has seen and done it all, and he’s the only character with enough perspective to be able to tell everybody else that none of their petty fights, none of their immature squabbles, in fact, nothing really at all in this life, matters. Pain is transient; life is fleeting. Get out there and enjoy it. It’s nothing we haven’t heard before, but Connolly’s brazen and brash delivery somehow makes it all rather uplifting.
Despite dealing with three pretty heavy D’s – depression, divorce, and death – What We Did On Our Holiday bounces back with the dignified resilience you wouldn’t expect from a typical family film. It often plods into contrived soppiness, but a tight script and unabashed improvisation are on hand to heave it out of the occasional frump. Hamilton and Jenkin were extremely judicious in their choice of child actors, and the film owes its second act to their quick-witted elasticity, even when the plot falls a little thin. It’s refreshing how bluntly some very grave issues are handled, especially the children’s thick skin in relation to their parents’ divorce. The adult talent is underused, but this is the kids’ show, and they make the most of it.