Minnie Driver plays a teacher struggling to shepherd her students through a pop-scored production of “The Tempest” in “Hunky Dory,” helmer Marc Evans’ raggedy, period-set comedy drama. Providing further evidence that the karaoke aesthetic of “Glee” is quickly metastasizing, the pic draws only slight entertainment value from the spectacle of youngsters warbling 1970s pop tunes, like a retro version of “High School Musical” with less charm. The half-baked script doesn’t help, but the film’s biggest problem will be finding an aud: Kids will think the music old-fashioned while few parents will find the premise appealing.
In a Welsh suburb in the sweltering early summer of 1976, Vivienne (Driver), a high-school drama teacher who once aspired to be a thesp herself, tries to keep her young charges’ minds on rehearsing a musical version of “The Tempest” that opens in a few weeks. All too often, the kids cut rehearsals to go swimming or storm off after fighting with each other. Such clashes happen with rather forced regularity throughout, in an attempt to generate plot-forwarding momentum.
At least shy male lead Davey (Aneurin Barnard) is motivated, especially since he gets to play Ferdinand opposite crush Stella (Danielle Branch), the pretty “town bike” (so named because “everyone has had a ride”) who’s been cast as Miranda. When the kid playing Prospero suddenly drops out to focus on rugby practice, Vivienne in desperation persuades the school’s headmaster (Robert Pugh) to take the role, hoping that flattering his vanity will provide some protection against fellow faculty members, such as prissy Mrs. Valentine (Haydn Gwynne) and sneering P.E. teacher Mr. Cafferty (Steve Speirs), who’d both be thrilled to see the whole thing called off.
The script spreads itself too thin trying to give backstories and subplots to too many characters, the most interesting and edgy of which sees Davey transferring his affections from Stella to Vivienne herself, but this proto-“Notes on a Scandal” development remains unconsummated. On the upside, the musical arrangements by Jody Talbot are in fact often lovely, especially when they deploy unusual instrumentation and choirs of tuneful Welsh kids on tracks originally performed by ELO, Nick Drake (a credibility-stretching pick, given that he was barely known beyond aficionado circles in 1976) and David Bowie ( “Life on Mars,” perhaps not the best choice, since it contains the line “But the film is a saddening bore … “).
The climactic performance of the play on an outdoor set has charm, and is prettily lit and lensed by rising young d.p. Charlotte Bruus Christensen (“Submarino”). Barnard, who took the lead role in the London stage version of “Spring Awakening,” actually has a fine set of pipes, and Driver (who’s released a few solo albums in between acting gigs) isn’t bad, either, although she somewhat lacks color. The frequency with which she’s brought on to sing raises suspicions that the pic may have been partly designed as a vanity project to showcase its star’s musical skills.
Though it was actually conceived before “Glee” started showing on TV, “Hunky Dory” nevertheless feels like a latecomer cashing in on a perhaps already waning fad for cover-version-based musicals. Compared with the U.S. television series, the script by Laurence Coriat (“Me Without You”) lacks wit, even accounting for the degeneration of “Glee” over the past year. Helming by Marc Evans is serviceable but underwhelming.
Arguably, the pic’s best moment comes at the end, when subtitles reveal the bittersweet fates that befall most of the characters in their later years, adding a downbeat quality that cuts through some of the sugariness of the preceding 109 minutes.