What We Did on Our Holiday

Scott Wallace
23rd Jan 2015

You may be familiar with the hilarious, semi-improvised BBC series Outnumbered. The family comedy is driven by the three child characters, who often deliver the wittiest (unscripted) one-liners and capture our hearts in the process. Creators of the series, Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin, have translated the show's formula to the big screen as co-writers and co-directors on What We Did on Our Holiday. Just like the TV series, the film is effortlessly charming in a very British way, wry, honest and more than a little sentimental. The end result is a little clunky at times, but overall it is a very likable and moving comedy drama.

The film tells the story of Abi (Rosamund Pike) and Doug McLeod (David Tennant), and their three children, Lottie (Emilia Jones), Mickey (Bobby Smalldridge) and Jess (Harriet Turnbull). The McLeod clan has been torn apart, with Abi and Doug residing in different households. However, they have made the decision to keep up an illusion of functionality for the sake of Doug's cancer-stricken father Gordy (Billy Connolly) for whose 75th birthday they are travelling to the Scottish highlands. This simple set-up, in the talented hands of Hamilton and Jenkin, as well as a generally excellent cast, provides a lot of very solid humour and pathos.

Billy Connolly, though his screen-time is rather short, is as funny as ever. He is irreverent and silly, but still brings an enormous amount of gravity to the role. His chemistry with Abi and Doug's eldest Lottie is particularly beautiful to watch. It is really the children that are the stars of this film; in the end, the story is largely told from their point of view, and their naive innocence makes them the most sympathetic characters. All three of them, particularly tiny Harriet Turnbull, are uproariously funny, delivering line after line of absurdity that is so natural that is seems almost certain that the same semi-improvisational approach of Outnumbered was deployed here.

Plot-wise the meat of the story, once the family all comes together in the Scottish highlands (including Doug's brother Gavin, played by Ben Miller, and his wife and son) and the film's key events are set in motion, can be a little tough to swallow at times. A little suspension of disbelief is required. There is also a slight lack of focus; sub-plots begin, but are never really allowed to develop in a meaningful way. The character archetypes are there - the social climber, the meek and beleaguered wife, the alienated son, the severe and uncompromising authority figure - but they are never really allowed to advance beyond being archetypes. Everything outside of the main plot could have been developed more or excised completely.

Even without that development, though, it's quite easy to see what Hamilton and Jenkin were aiming for. Their dissection of this apparently dysfunctional family is not subtle, but it is quite effective in the end. Several times throughout, the tears were well and truly on their way, aided in no small part by the bold, bracing musical score by Alex Heffes. On a few occasions, a couple of the overly neat plot developments had the cynic in me rolling his eyes, but thankfully the movie avoids a conclusion of unrealistically perfect familial bliss.

Overall, What We Did on Our Holiday is not perfect, but it is completely enjoyable. At no point does it grow dull or directionless, and while there are a few patches devoid of humour in favour of pathos, the jokes are pretty consistently delivered and consistently funny. It is a well-written, well-cast and well-acted film, and it is genuine enough to even be a cathartic experience. For the most cynical, it's probably a little too sentimental, but it's not saccharine. It's a mature, truthful piece of comedy, and that's something to be treasured.

What We Did on Our Holiday opens in Australian cinemas on February 12th.