REVIEW: What We Did On Our Holiday - Laughter And Tears And A Touch Of The Macabre

The new film from award-winning writing duo Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin is an hilarious feel-good family comedy with a touch of the macabre.

The creators of Outnumbered have shown that they can successfully transfer their highly successful semi-improvisational directorial techniques to the big screen as they come up with a winner in What We Did On Our Holiday. Setting its sights on broader horizons than the award-winning BBC sitcom, this new movie from BBC Films, written and directed by Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin, looks at a family’s trip to Scotland through the eyes of its younger members. With a plotline that includes divorce, terminal cancer and an international press invasion you might get the idea that there were not many laughs to be had – but think again. This is a little gem that is at once side-splitting and tear jerking.

The McLeods, headed by Doug and Abi (David Tennant and Rosamund Pike), are a family in crisis. Mum and Dad are going through a messy divorce and the children are fed up with the arguments and the lies. Nevertheless, the adults make the decision to put on a united front and travel together to Scotland to celebrate the 75th birthday of Doug’s father Gordie (Billy Connolly). Gordie is ill, and, although the children don’t know it, his cancer is terminal. Doug and Abi don’t want to ruin the time he has left with bad news so mention of the split is taboo, but with such young kids in tow you know that's not going to go to plan.

With this set-up you would be forgiven for expecting a run-of-the-mill comedy of errors where the kids blurt out family secrets to the rest of the family and party guests while their parents desperately try to cover up. And to a certain extent this is the case...until Jenkin and Hamilton throw a complete curveball and the plot takes a decidedly darker turn. When a tragedy occurs, the children take a course of action, albeit motivated by love for and respect of their grandfather, which has consequences for the whole family and forces the feuding elements of the McLeod clan to pull together or risk losing everything. But that’s easier said than done when the adults are acting more childishly than the kids.

Unarguably the film belongs to the children, and luckily the directors have made perfect casting choices and put together a thoroughly believable little family. There’s the serious elder child Lottie (Emilia Jones), the imaginative loquacious, Viking obsessed Mickey (Bobby Smalldridge) and the tiny force of nature that is Jess (Harriet Turnbull). Allowing these three free rein on set has certainly paid off as their improvised observations and interactions with the adults provide most of the comedy and warmth – the younger two certainly display childish unselfconsciousness in all of its glory, saying exactly what they are thinking with no filter at all. To say that the three young leads are showstealers would definitely be an understatement.

Still, the adult cast are no less disappointing. David Tennant as Doug displays immaculate comic timing, but can also be heartbreaking in a beat, especially the scenes where he considers that he might lose his children. Rosamund Pike too displays a deft comic touch as Abi, a loving mum who becomes instantly ferocious when defending her kids. Ben Miller wrings laughs out of his ludicrous, uptight social climber Gavin, who needs to learn to appreciate what he has and not covet what he does not. Amelia Bullmore’s uptight Margaret harbours her own secret, one which is revealed via a side-splitting escalating YouTube sequence that is straight out of Big Train. Not to be forgotten is Lewis Davie as Gavin’s son. His quieter role as the hot-housed but unappreciated Kenneth is at danger of being overlooked in favour of the other youngsters, but he too has his own sweet story arc. Annette Crosbie dispels all memories of Margaret Meldrew with her turn as a sweary lesbian farmer, while Celia Imrie is slimy and threatening as social worker Agnes. Finally, Billy Connolly – what can be said about the veteran performer? Allegedly the writers only ever considered him for the role of Gordie, and as such it fits him like a glove. Gordie is the one character, who, with the benefit of a life well lived and a comprehension of his own mortality, actually sees the bigger picture.

Yes, the film has its plot holes, and you’ll doubtless need to suspend disbelief at one point, but its overall charm more than makes up for this. Paradoxically for a plot centring round tragedy and a shocking act, the film exudes comedy, warmth and optimism. A prolonged day out sequence with Gordie and the kids is touching and hilarious, while the bickering adults are forced to look at what really is important to them only after being shown to be ridiculous and childish. There is more then one sequence which will have audiences roaring with laughter while simultaneously choking back tears – a rare feat in itself. There may not be a perfect happy ending but there is hope and trust. And no doubt there will be elements of 21st Century family life that everyone can identify with.

What We Did on Our Holiday is a fine, quirky British comedy that shows that the UK film industry is in good health. We'd highly recommend it!

What We Did On Our Holiday is written and directed by Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin. It is a joint production by BBC Films and Origin Pictures in association with Creative Scotland and Lip Sync Productions.The film premieres in London today and goes on general release in the UK and Ireland on Friday 26th September. Check with your local cinema for showtimes and make sure that you don't miss it!