What We Did on Our Holiday could also be known as How I Exposed My Dysfunctional Family to the Horrible Truth of Who They Actually Are.
We all have that uncle or aunty in the family, we can own up to our fair share of dysfunction, some more than others. Family behaving badly is something we can all recognise. Just remember the last extended family event, maybe a milestone birthday, maybe a funeral? After all, it’s within the safety of family that we can be ourselves, isn’t it?
Not so in this film.
What We Did on Our Holiday is a tale of two brothers, Doug (David Tennant) and Gavin (Ben Miller), reuniting with their families for dad’s (Billy Connolly) birthday. Connolly’s Gordy McLeod is the ageing and ailing but wise patriarch of a family in disarray. A family that is totally going off the rails in an orgy of destruction, a family that won’t admit it to anyone – let alone themselves. The game of normality is played by all, that is except for Gordy and Doug’s three kids. They see right through the bullshit with a clarity that may just save the day.
Doug, his wife Abi (Rosamund Pike) and the kids travel up from London to Gavin’s Scottish home, where Gordy also lives. The journey is of stress and strain. This family, on their last legs, separated with imminent divorce, can barely be civil for more than a few minutes. Their uniting mission is to pretend that they are a happy family and to keep the rest of the family from knowing of the separation.
Gavin and his family are no role models either. Gavin is a control freak and his wife (Celia Imrie) and son are suffering massively under his regime. While she goes mad, he becomes so stifled he has no personality left. When the two families collide it is a recipe for disaster, but it’s also very fertile comedic ground, especially when seen through the eyes of the children and Grandpa. Herein lies the magic of this film.
It becomes clear that all Gordy wants is some respect and dignity in his twilight years and that he is getting neither in large doses. He doesn’t want the fancy, 200-plus guests, soiree that Gavin so desperately needs in order to maintain his social status. He doesn’t want to engage in the lies and charades of younger son Doug’s pathetic attempt to portray a happy marriage just before it self-implodes.
Enter his young grandchildren stage right. They listen to him, they respect him, they speak the truth and they defy their age with wit and insight. Together they set off on an adventure, leaving the adults to the final preparations of the big party.
Magnificent Scottish landscapes benefit from Martin Hawkins’ beautiful cinematography, whilst the witty screenplay ensures it provides many, many belly laughs.
Directors-writers Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin were behind a hit BBC comedy series titled Outnumbered, and it was in this format that they developed a method of improvisation for children’s dialogue. They have used this same method to produce a very tight, sharp and witty tale that, like all good comedy, shines a spotlight on the darker side of our lives.
The kids in this film carry the torch; they are a knock out! Ultimately, the plot highlights them as the adults, the sensible ones who see it and tell it how it is. They steal the show and are gently nudged on by Connolly. The likes of young Emilia Jones, Bobby Smalldridge and Harriet Turnbull all hold their own and shine amongst a very strong adult cast. They aim to play young children in a broken family, and they nail it with magnificence.
Connolly can be a bit overbearing and dominant, but here he plays his role with a soft hand and a restraint that earns him respect. He is still very funny, but he downplays it just right, allowing the kids to excel.
What We Did on Our Holiday is a funny, feel-good movie for the whole family, even if the family dysfunction can often be quite cruel and harsh. While the ending is a little too soft and cushy for its own good, the film is more about the journey than the destination. Great performances, a witty script, magnificent landscapes and some food for thought add up to a worthwhile outing.
THE REEL SCORE: 7/10