An old filmmaking adage says that you should never work with children or animals, however if the debut film by Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin (both credited as writer/director); the duo that brought us the television show Outnumbered is anything to go by, at least one of the previously mentioned two doesn’t have to be the case; sometimes working with children can produce great results.
To use a quote from the press notes, What We Did on Our Holiday is a film where “there is a lot of childish behavior going on – and not all of it from the children”. The story concerns the recently divorced Doug (David Tennant) and Abi (Rosamund Pike) travelling with their three children to Scotland for the 75th birthday of Doug’s father Gordie, played perfectly by the always reliable Billy Connolly. Once there, high jinx ensue as the two try to keep their divorce a secret among sibling rivalries between Doug and his wealthy brother Gavin (Ben Miller) and the antics of the three children played by newcomers Harriet Turnball, Bobby Smalldridge and the very impressive Emilia Jones. The story is like a combination of the previously mentioned Outnumbered and a much tamer version of Death at a Funeral, a turning point at about the half way mark, which you should really try to avoid finding out about, takes the film in a direction that is both unexpected and darkly funny. The end result is a film that is both charming, funny and isn’t afraid to have a lovely, if rather unoriginal, message at its heart; we’re all ridiculous in our own way.
It always seems that working with child actors would be difficult, even more difficult would be writing dialogue between children that seems natural and doesn’t seem trite or forced. Using their unique method, the Hamilton/Jenkin partnership have figured out how to do very well – their solution is that the adult actors know the script very well while the the children know the basic outline of the scene but go through the shoot improvising both dialogue and behavior with the adults reacting to the tangents the children go on, resulting in a peculiar mix of natural performances and reactions from both the child and adult actors.
While this is above all a rather charming comedy, it isn’t afraid to occasionally branch out into darker elements. The sub-plot of the parent’s divorce has enough of an edge to be taken seriously and with family dysfunction, the sadness of growing old and one character experiencing depression; there are noticeable tinges of black comedy thrown into the mix. This leads to the single criticism could be leveled at this film; the tonal shifts don’t always gel, with an occasional dip into a saccharine sweetness overpowering everything else, but to take problem with that would be using a brand of cynicism that shouldn’t be brought anywhere near a film such as this – Yes, it’s occasionally a bit sentimental, and some of the story-beats in the third act don’t work particularly well, but it would take a hard heart not to be won over. It’s the kind of film that showcases the best kind of British comedy; it’s a feel-good movie in the best sense; if you needed a film to watch with your grandparents, this would be a great choice.
What We Did on Our Holiday isn’t going to change anyone’s life or win awards, but it succeeds totally in what it sets out to do; it’s charming, funny, sometimes moving and will have you spending ninety minutes of the ninety-five minute running time with a broad smile on your face. It’s a decidedly small film with a giant heart, a showcase for some gorgeous Scottish scenery and considering Billy Connolly’s recent diagnosis; it’s a perfect tribute and fitting send-off.
What We Did on Our Holiday is in Australian cinemas from February 12 through Transmission films.