There’s fewer more distressing sights than that of an Englishman in a baseball cap. – Peter Doherty, The Libertines
It may sound a little odd to begin a film review with a song quote. And, even more so to use one from The Libertines, a band that clearly enjoyed their biggest success during the early 2000’s; some 30 years after Hunky Dory is set. But, please allow me to explain. It’s plainly evident that Marc Evans’ new film is a work set in the 1970’s, in both style and context; even going some way to reference some of the socio-political movements of the era, though most of the time this is in subtext. It’s also apt to include songs by David Bowie, ELO, The Beach Boys and more, who were incredibly popular at the time. But at what point did it seem like it was a good idea to have the cast perform (or, for want of a better word, butcher) these classic songs in a Glee style? A musical form that couldn’t be further from Welsh, in fact UK roots. Either teacher Vivienne (Minnie Driver) had some pretty radical approaches to musical theatre or the directing/producing team behind Hunky Dory were purely thinking of cashing in on a popular TV fad.
Set in the heat wave summer of 1976, new teacher Vivienne (Minnie Driver) is in the midst of presenting her big ideas for the end of year school production; the blending of David Bowie and William Shakespeare in a musical production of The Tempest. Relishing in the hot summer weather, Vivienne’s class of coming-of-age teens would rather spend their days down by the Lido than in rehearsals. But, not one to be stopped, the teacher is determined to bring her apathetic bunch together for the show of her life, and hopefully their lives too.
The real story of of Hunky Dory lies outside Vivienne’s kooky production bubble. The story follows the merging lives of the teenagers; their love, lusts, conflicts, dramas and dreams. Newcomer Aneurin Barnard plays Davey, a boy who’s infatuated with fellow school mate Stella (Danielle Branch), as well as coping with a broken home, with his single dad and pyro-happy brother. There’s another boy who likes Davey, who in turn has a girl that likes him; and a sister who’s going out with her brother’s best friend, that has an effect of a band he’s in; and a boy who’s being bullied by his brother and a misunderstood boy and a girl who wants to be with a coloured lad and some bigots and racists and interfering teachers… well you get the picture. It’s all very interlinked and confusing, much as teenage life tends to be. But, what’s great about Hunky Dory is that while all of these stories are interweaving, like the show that unites them, the the story somehow remains very engaging.
That’s to the credit of the acting talent in the film. Minnie Driver is fantastic as vivienne, nailing the Welsh accent and talking at break-neck speed. She has an energy that bounces off the screen and her performance really raises the standard of the film. Driver has some significant help from a very good cast, consisting mostly of new blood. Notable mentions should go to Darren Evans who plays hapless and misunderstood teenager Kenny Loder, desperately fighting against angst and rebellion and trying to find some stability in his life. There’s also Danielle Branch, who is superb as frivolous Stella.
In fact, it’s fair to say that everyone in Hunky Dory performs well. Unfortunately, that’s not enough to save the film. The script falls into lazy misogynistic territory on more than one occasion. Characters have a strong whiff of stereotype about them, there’s even a French lady (superbly played by Julia Perez) who oozes sexuality for no other reason than she’s French. It’s a bizarre series of stereotypes that British films have a terrible habit of slipping into. There’s a quick scene which introduces some skinheads who are clearly there to suggest the problem with racial hatred in the era. But because of everything else going on in the film, their story is a mere fleeting glance with everything else that’s happening.
The cinematography in Hunky Dory is sumptuously lush. Charlotte Bruus Christensen has perfectly captured the heat and tones of 1976. It’s hard not to imagine yourself baking in the warm orange glow of the sun. Director Marc Evans moves the film along at a decent pace, but there’s so much going on that the movie feels cluttered; busy and in need of a character cull or two.
Hunky Dory has far too many stories going on in the picture. Whilst somehow remaining engaging the film is also wholly frustrating. There are hardly any, if any, resolutions to any of the stories. The film ends with one of the most annoying devices in film practices: the character summary epilogue, where you read what’s happened to each person after the context of the film.
That brings us to the bigger picture; the musical. Oh dear, the musical. The song renditions in Hunky Dory should come with a warning – they may send any self respecting David Bowie, ELO, Beach Boy, Mott The Hoople fan into fits of rage. The renditions are, in brief, terrible. Aneurin Barnard, who we are meant to believe sings like an angel, and, in fact, can’t sing at all. But that isn’t as bad as the arrangements and in what context they’re used. I’m quite sure Shakespeare would be spinning in his grave at the thought of his Prospero strutting along to ELO’s Strange Magic. Don’t get me wrong: on the left hand, great play; on the right hand, great song – but those hands should be kept as far apart as possible! Fans of Glee may be more receptive to the performances, but without the polished perfection of the American musical movement, the songs just don’t work. And who wants them to? Britain should and is proud of the music it produced in the 70’s. It’s such a shame they’ve been transformed into Welsh High School Musical.
Hunky Dory is out to watch at cinemas from Friday 2 March (UK and Ireland)