Film Review: ‘Whisky Galore!’

Agreeably precious but largely pointless, Gillies MacKinnon's remake of the classic Ealing Studios farce could use a boozy kick.

With:
Gregor Fisher, Eddie Izzard, Sean Biggerstaff, Ellie Kendrick, Naomi Battrick, Kevin Guthrie, Ken Drury, Kevin Mains, Michael Nardone, Brian Pettifer, Iain Robertson, Ann Louise Ross, Sean Scanlan, Antony Strachan, Fenella Woolgar, James Cosmo, John Sessiomns, Tim Pigott-Smith.

“No alcohol was consumed during the making of this film,” quip the closing credits of “Whisky Galore!” — a cute enough joke, though after watching this innocuous, unmemorable remake of the 1949 Ealing Studios classic, one can’t help thinking the filmmakers should have imbibed a little. Oddly stiff where Alexander Mackendrick’s original village farce was infectiously tipsy, Gillies MacKinnon’s interpretation is twee, tweedy and rather timid about putting its own stamp on a now-quaint story — in which a Scottish island community, run dry of its most beloved spirit through Second World War rationing, must outwit the British Home Guard to secure fresh supplies of the boozy liquid gold. There’s little to dislike about this second shot of “Whisky,” with its appealing ensemble and hat-in-hand approach to the Ealing playbook; there’s just equally little reason for it to exist. 

Though nominally an update, this “Whisky Galore!” — which has weathered a long, complicated development process — hardly betrays a more contemporary perspective on the material, drawn from Compton Mackenzie’s 1947 comic novel (itself loosely inspired by real events). If not for the sharp digital finish of Nigel Willoughby’s cinematography, you’d scarcely know when in the last 70 years it had even been shot. “Whisky Galore!” will surely play best in its northerly home turf, where its light-hearted tale of stout-hearted Scotsmen getting the better of plummy English dimwits may strike a chord with independence-seeking, Nicola Sturgeon-voting Scottish patriots: Peter MacDougall’s cozy screenplay, however, finds no room for cheeky political subtext, which rather feels like an opportunity squandered.

In other words, there’s nothing here to surprise or alarm fans of the original. Once more, the setting is the tiny, fictional island of Todday in the remote Outer Hebrides — a close-knit settlement that has largely been insulated from the effects of the war until, in 1943, the village runs out of whisky. For the hearty locals, this is but one step down from an oxygen shortage on the panic scale; among those affected are widowed postmaster Macroon (Gregor Fisher) and his two adult daughters Caitriona (“Game of Thrones” star Ellie Kendrick, perhaps the film’s strongest selling point) and Peggy (Naomi Battrick).

Both women’s upcoming nuptial plans are improbably affected by the drought — a contrivance that the Ealing film’s sprightly tall-story tone sold a bit more persuasively than the remake does. Peggy is betrothed to army sergeant Odd (Sean Biggerstaff), who must throw a traditionally boozy engagement party to earn Macroon’s blessing; meanwhile, Caitriona’s suitor, milquetoast schoolteacher George (Kevin Guthrie), needs a few drams of the strong stuff to break free of his devout, domineering mother (Ann Louise Ross). Handily, a storm-battered freighter, packed to the gills with whisky, runs aground near Todday; Odd’s supercilious commander Captain Waggett (Eddie Izzard) is charged with guarding the cargo, though needless to say, his English propriety is no match for the wiles of multiple thirsty Scots.

Cue the expected hijinks — or, more accurately, mediumjinks, since MacKinnon (working in a blander register than in such earlier outings as “Hideous Kinky” and “Pure”) conducts the farce at a pretty relaxed pace, with proceedings further mollified by the syrupy flute-and-fiddle lilt of Patrick Doyle’s score. (Landing just shy of 100 minutes, the film is far from a chore, but feels palpably less buzzed than the 82-minute original.) Izzard, riffing as much on British sitcom archetypes from the likes of “Dad’s Army” as on Basil Radford’s original characterization, makes for a gently amusing stooge, though his antic comic repertoire is hardly stretched. Most winning among the villagers is Guthrie, recently a standout in Terence Davies’ “Sunset Song,” his sweet sad-sack demeanor gaining a little fire once the alcohol is found; if only the rest of “Whisky Galore!” followed suit.

Film Review: 'Whisky Galore!'

Reviewed online, London, May 11, 2017. (In Edinburgh Film Festival — closing film.) Running time: 99 MIN.

Production: (U.K.) An Arrow Films release of a Whisky Galore Movie Ltd. production in association with StudioCanal. Producers: Iain Maclean, Alan J. Wands. Executive producers: Peter Drayne, Michael Ryan

Crew: Director: Gillies MacKinnon. Screenplay: Peter McDougall, based on the novel by Compton Mackenzie. Camera (color, HD): Nigel Willoughby. Editor: Anne Sopel.

With: Gregor Fisher, Eddie Izzard, Sean Biggerstaff, Ellie Kendrick, Naomi Battrick, Kevin Guthrie, Ken Drury, Kevin Mains, Michael Nardone, Brian Pettifer, Iain Robertson, Ann Louise Ross, Sean Scanlan, Antony Strachan, Fenella Woolgar, James Cosmo, John Sessiomns, Tim Pigott-Smith.

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