WHISKY GALORE!: From Ship To Bore
A remake of the Ealing classic, Whisky Galore! has its share of laughs, but its hard to tell just who or for what purpose the film serves.
When I first heard that they were remaking Whisky Galore!, I experienced two emotions. The first was excitement. After all, parts of the film were shot just a few miles up the road from where I lived, in the northeast of Scotland, an area which has lately been growing in popularity for film crews. The second was puzzlement. A puzzlement that proceeded to keep me up late into the night. A question that had no discernible answer.
Who would this remake of Whisky Galore! be aimed at?
It’s a relevant question given that director Gilles MacKinnon’s remake of a, rightly, beloved Ealing classic from 1949, based on a novel by Compton Mackenzie and directed by Alexander Mackendrick, has a hard road to hoe in terms of audience appeal. The story hasn’t really changed at all. Set during the second world war, on the isle of Todday, it concerns the attempts of a group of islanders to rob a ship that has run aground just off the coast. Its cargo: 50,000 cases of Scotch Whisky.
Standing in their way are the Home Guard, in the shape of Captain Wagget (Eddie Izzard), a shirt so stuffed that he would probably roll down a hill if you pushed him over, and a strict Minister (James Cosmo), who won’t allow the islanders to work on the Sabbath day. Throw in two weddings, some minor characters to provide some witty banter and a surprising amount of sunshine, given its Hebridean location, and you’ve got…..well, something fairly run-of-the-mill.
Which brings me back to my question: Who is this remake aimed at? Those who remember the original picture may feel a certain tingle of nostalgia (indeed I’m sure the filmmakers are counting on that to make back its budget), but really, outside of die hard cineastes and people over 70 (who, sadly, don’t tend to go to the multiplex as much as the 15-35 year olds), there isn’t much to bring people in.
Sunsets and stereotypes
It doesn’t help that, despite a game cast and some lovely scenery, the film feels light on laughs and low on character, reducing many of the citizens of the fictional town to the sort of stereotyping usually reserved for Hallmark romantic comedies. Much like Elmer Fudd describing a forest, the whole thing is just too twee. The film actually reminded me of that Irish picture Waking Ned, which had the “begorrah” and “blarney stone” talk turned up to eleven. With Whisky Galore!, it’s all magic hour sunsets, giddy wedding talk and, once the whisky starts to come ashore, nothing but lighthearted frolicking and drunken fun.
Mackendrick’s original may have had these stereotypes too, but he wasn’t afraid to give a little sour with the sweet, and was certainly not averse to a good dose of black humor. It makes one recall the moment as the ship is finally being taken by the waves, and one lone old man has resigned himself to stay with the vessel, the thought of losing any of the booze so abhorrent to him that he would rather drown with it, a little like the captain of the Titanic if he was six times over the limit. It’s an almost iconic moment, so its a pity that this new version falls flat on such observation and doesn’t have the guts to add a little shadow to all that sunlight, or provide a joke or two worthy of that cracker.
The last time an attempt was made to remake an Ealing classic, it was with the Coen Brothers’ ill-advised The Ladykilllers. Inspired change of location not withstanding, something vital was lost in its translation. The humor. The same can be said here, for, although both Eddie Izzard and Gregor Fisher are actors who have form with character comedy, the script gives them little to work with, and the bite of Mackendrick’s original is lost in a haze of Aran sweaters and wellington boots.
Every cliché is present and correct in Whisky Galore!, leaving you to yearn for the form that MacKinnon had shown on his Glasgow-based gang picture Small Faces, which had a finely judged sense of menace and comedy. The laughs all seem too forced here, kind of like The Full Monty without the social comment. Or the striptease payoff. Izzard, in particular, seems to be channelling Arthur Lowe in Dad’s Army, incidentally another recent remake that didn’t quite work.
Fisher, meanwhile, is best known, in Scotland at least, for the TV show Rab C. Nesbitt, in which he played the alcoholic title character, sort of like Frank Gallagher from Shameless, but with a lot more political rampage in his soul. As the actor has slipped into middle age, the roles have become cuddlier, like his turn as Bill Nighy’s manager in Love Actually; his great gift for allowing contained rage and bitterness to explode into comedic outbursts are curtailed even further here. Sure, you root for the Islanders to triumph against the oppressors, and yet the authorities never really muster much in the way of adversity. Nothing is really at stake here, making for a film you end up tolerating, rather than falling in love with.
Technically, the film is well made, with the production design in particular creating one of the most desirable little towns this side of Brigadoon, another whimsical Scottish-set story that came along five years after Mackendrick’s picture. The echo of these films can’t help but reverberate throughout Mackinnon’s remake.
Echoes of the past
Watching the film, however, one gets the sense that in fact it doesn’t want to be Whisky Galore! at all. It wants to be Local Hero, the charming Bill Forsyth comedy from the early ’80s which was, in itself, inspired by Mackendrick’s Ealing original. This smacks of perhaps a new sub-genre: the post-modern, ironic remake, or, in other words, an oxymoron. Local Hero may have taken inspiration from Whisky Galore!, but its mind was focused on Scotland’s then oil boom, which brought forth prosperity and multi-national corporate interest to small communities that never would have dreamed their land was worth millions of pounds, dollars, whatever was strongest on the market.
Given a contemporary setting, perhaps Whisky Galore! could have worked, maybe even finding some clever way to tie into Scotland’s recent blend of patriotism and quest for independence. That, at the very least, would have given a purpose to this remake of a story so old fashioned that even those who remember the original will have a hard time getting off their backsides to go and see it.
Expect it to disappear into Sunday afternoon TV scheduling oblivion. In fairness, considering all the talent squandered here, that’s probably for the best. From the moment the film begins, the ship is starting to sink.
So, did Whisky Galore! float your boat or give you that sinking feeling?
Whisky Galore! is in cinemas now.
“The clock has run out on sexual assault, harassment and inequality in the workplace. It’s time to do something about it.” Read the Letter of Solidarity here. Make a donation to the legal fund here.