After admitting at a recent family gathering that I had never seen the film or stage production of Mamma Mia!, the DVD was being whipped out of its cellophane wrapper and into the player in double quick time – and what a perfect film selection it proved in the holiday week atmosphere.
Men might dislike this film on principle because it’s light and fluffy and utterly flippant fun; younger audiences may dislike it as well, since it concentrates on the friendships, trials and tribulations of the mostly middle aged characters, with the pretty young bride and her even prettier groom-to-be soon pushed out of the limelight by the wrinklies. But really, only the most complete and utter grinch could possibly hold out against such a tidal wave of vitality and enjoyment that’s unleashed in the process – just as only the most ardent of dog-haters can hold out for more than a few minutes against the overwhelming charms of the most good-natured Labrador or golden retriever that’s set at full-on loveable-and-adorable mode.
Despite the all-star cast (Meryl Streep! Pierce Brosnan! Stellan Skarsgård! Colin Firth! Julie Walters! Dominic Cooper!) and the gorgeous sun-soaked Greek island setting, the real stars of this film are undoubtably the ABBA songs (which remain both quintessentially 70s and yet, curiously, joyously timeless as well) that are just about tenuously woven together by the script. Actually they manage to fit together remarkably well all things considered, with only “Chiquitita” being done with the most audacious and obvious of set-ups – but it does so with such a wide, knowing grin toward the audience that you really can’t mind a bit. And it’s not like you could do an ABBA show with “Chiquitita”, now is it?
The story doesn’t really matter – it’s just an excuse for the songs at the end of the day and is always intent on the obvious happy ending – but surprisingly doesn’t take the path of not bothering too much, either. There’s a few unexpected twists in the outcome, and overall the script conjures up a quite complex French farce of “who knows what and with whom and when?” levels of intricacy. That it sometimes doesn’t make sense and leaves you yelling at certain people not to be so obtuse or secretive is just part of the game shared with the audience. Equally you can totally ignore the plot if you want and simply sit back and enjoy the spectacle, which puts it in much the same category as any number of golden age Hollywood musicals.
The cast seem to enjoy themselves immensely going through the most famous “big” song and dance numbers and acquit themselves pretty well on all counts – save for Brosnan, who really can’t sing at all and is somewhat miscast in the part of Sam as written; and as for what accent he’s attempting, it seems to change from scene to scene. But Brosnan then almost completely makes up for such deficiencies with his charm and star presence that seems to only continue to grow in leaps and bounds post-007. Skarsgård is also somewhat awkward playing comedy, while Firth gets perhaps the least likeable character and Cooper gets a rather thankless second-string role in the proceedings. The girls fare much better, with Julie Walters a particular delight throughout and Christine Baranski all-but reprising her much-married witty best friend role from TV’s Cybill and thereby once again stealing some of the best scenes of the film, especially her big solo number “Does Your Mother Know.”
Central to it all is Streep, the most serious dramatic actress of her generation, who this time around is having a ball in the role of a comically-overwhelmed hippyish hotel owner. I’d heard that her singing was pretty good, but I was still surprised at just how good she was with it all (and how well she acquitted herself with the enthusiastic if undistinguished choreographed dancing too.) She also gets to exercise her dramatic muscles near the end when the story uses some of the later-era, more melancholy ABBA songs to allow her moments of real feeling and angst including “Slipping Through My Fingers” and “The Winner Takes It all” before the inevitably happy-all-round ending that follows.
It helps that such later bitter-sweet songs are some of my favourite songs from ABBA: the rousing singalong big numbers are all well and good, but ABBA were at their best just when they were falling apart – when that sadness and turmoil bled into their last albums. This was some of their finest, deepest and most heart-felt work of their time together, however much they’re overshadowed by the earlier more empty-headed singalong numbers for which they’re best known. Yes, I admit it – I’m quite an ABBA fan and have been ever since I can remember, and that surely predisposes me toward liking Mamma Mia! as a whole.
Is it a great film? Not in the slightest. It doesn’t pretend to be, nor does it seek to be. There’s all manner of faults with it, and everyone’s at least one notch over the top along with the colour saturation, but it just doesn’t matter. The film simply wants to have some loud and unrestrained fun, to take you along with the cast away to Greece for a break from the gloom of the British weather and allow everyone to have some unexpected out-of-character fun and enjoy a brief summer fling far from the demands of reality. It has no higher or greater aspiration, which leaves it free to deliver exactly the levels of delight that it intended to from the start – much like ABBA’s music itself always did in its heyday. The soundtrack and the film are entirely well-matched in that aspiration and style.
Maybe you have to be one or more of either female, middle-aged or a fan of ABBA’s to enjoy this. But if that’s the case, the rest of you don’t know the 105 minutes of fun you’re missing out on and instead you can go and also shoo off that adorable Labrador on the way out, as you leave the rest of us singing along so badly and shamelessly that even Pierce Brosnan’s vocals are sounding rather awesome by comparison.
Mamma Mia! is showing on ITV1 on January 4 2012 at 8pm (and an hour later on ITV1+1)