Family chaos

What We Did On Our Holiday

Rated PG 

Off-the-wall comedies seem to work particularly well when they’re set in Scotland.

The recipe is hard to explain but the good ones never just rely on laughs. There’s always a delicate balance of drama, eccentric characters and a dash of the fantastic – with the landscape often as important a character as the people in it.

What We Did On Our Holiday doesn’t gel as completely as memorable films like Local Hero, which had so many well-defined characters in its little seaside Scottish village that you wanted to ring up their one telephone for a chat once the credits rolled.

It’s possible that the slight disconnect in What We Did On Our Holiday may be because its co-writers and directors, Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin (known for TV shows such as the family comedy Outnumbered and political satire Drop the Dead Donkey) are English.

Little Scots nuances and stylistic self-deprecation will always be harder to grasp from the outside.

In addition Hamilton and Jenkin put much of the sharpest dialogue into the mouths of the children, which doesn’t always work. And they are, to a certain extent, recreating the (English) dysfunctional family from Outnumbered, expanding their crises and transferring it all to the big screen.

Having said all that, I happily suspended disbelief and enjoyed this film very much.

Doug McLeod (David Tennant) and his estranged wife Abi (Rosamund Pike) attempt to call a truce in order to drive their three kids Lottie, Mickey and Jess from London to rural Scotland for the 75th birthday celebrations of Doug’s father Gordy (Billy Connolly).

It’s a long enough drive when you’re all at peace with each other, but the kids are stressed at their parents’ break-up and dealing with it in quirkily different ways, while Doug and Abi can’t do anything without fighting about it. Abi is also planning to move away from London and take the children, which is a relational bomb waiting to explode at just the wrong moment.

At the Scottish end, it’s not exactly peaceful either, as Gordy has cancer and knows he is not long for this world. A crusty, cheeky old scamp, he just wants his birthday to be a low-key celebration with the people he loves rather than the grand, posh event his obsessive older son Gavin (Ben Miller) has arranged down to the last, exhaustive detail.

Connolly more or less plays himself as Gordy – but charmingly, and without most of the usual bad language. He is particularly close to Lottie (an excellent performance by 12-year-old Emilia Jones), who soon lets out all the secrets she and the other kids had been told to keep quiet from Grandad. He, in turn, tells her about his cancer, and she is furious her parents not only kept it from her but lied about it.

On his birthday, Gordy tells event-minded Gavin that all he wants is to take his grandkids out for the day at the lake. Which he duly does. He gleefully teaches them rude songs, lets an alarmed Lottie drive the car and tells her she needs to “do more and think less”.

Despite their wonderful day together the holiday is careering towards a major crisis – one none of them could have imagined, which finally gets everyone’s secrets and issues out in the open. It’s not pretty, and the children are beside themselves. How are they supposed to respond? And why won’t the adults around them behave like grown-ups so they can be relied upon?

There is plenty of good humour in What We Did On Our Holiday and a liberal dash of swearing, along with unexpected drama and moments of reflection. The film also contains strong messages about love and family with direct commentary to all parents – together or apart – about the effect disagreements, lack of attention or selfishness have on their children.

Lottie, Mickey and Jess are ridiculously well read and skilled for their age (how many primary schoolers do you know who avidly watch documentaries and the news?) but if you can run with the construct provided by the filmmakers, it’s pretty telling stuff. Amid all the smart lines the kids simply want to be loved, they want to feel secure, they want their views to be understood and respected and they don’t want to be treated like fools just because they’re children. It’s Relationships 101, and a good thing to be reminded about.

Gordy, with the clarity provided by cancer, puts his finger on it by saying that all of them are ridiculous in one way or another, and in the end none of that matters. You may not agree with everything the film says does matter, but you’ll have an enjoyable time nonetheless.