What We Did On Our Holiday is like a stick of rock with ‘bad idea’ written right the way through it. This is essentially the film version of British family sitcom Outnumbered, whose central gimmick is the semi-improvised children’s dialogue. Here’s your basic gag formula: cute kid says something innocently outrageous, cut to British character actor looking politely shocked and amused. By and large it’s ‘Kids Say the Darndest things’ the sitcom.
Needless to say I wasn’t exactly buzzing with anticipation. First impressions confirmed my suspicions. As David Tennant argued in confused amusement with a six year old I felt twinge of sympathy for him being stuck in this garbage. Soon after came a light smattering of actually-okay jokes. Oh well, if I’m going to be stuck watching syrupy garbage, at least it’s tolerable syrupy garbage.
Then the jokes kept coming. And – god help me – I laughed. To my surprise I realized I was actually sort of enjoying myself. The children slowly morphed from precocious cliches into straight-up characters, the adult characters revealed some complexities and, you know what, this cinematography is actually kind of pretty. Oh okay, I admit it, I was having a great time. Then, about halfway through, the film goes absolutely bananas.
Here’s the dark secret of What We Did On Our Holiday: underneath the moisturized rosy-cheeked, as-white-as-it-gets skin of a middle-class, middle-brow Brit-fam-com lies a twisted, ghoulish skeleton. Directors Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin have put together a real sucker punch of a film, one that initially appears to conform to dusty old narrative cliches but proceeds to go off the rails in spectacularly bonkers fashion.
See if you can work out what going to happen from this set-up: a family goes on holiday to visit their sick grandfather on his birthday. The parents are separated and soon to divorce but have decided to hide the fact from the rest of the family for the grandfather’s sake. He doesn’t have long left, so they figure he may as well die in ignorant bliss. To this end the children have been instructed to lie to their extended family. As we arrive at the grandfather’s house we discover that an enormous marquee is being erected to host a lavish party with about a hundred guests arriving. As we meet the extended family we learn that everybody is concealing their own secrets (and lies).
This story structure is so cliched that some distant echo of it is probably carved into the side of an Egyptian sarcophagus; hieroglyphs of an horrified Pharaoh clutching his headdress in embarrassment as his oblivious son makes an embarrassing speech. Maybe If we’re lucky someone will knock a snooty, big-nosed uncle into a giant cake. None of that happens. Instead, What We Did On Our Holiday takes an almost sadistic pleasure in zigging when it looks like its going to zag, ending up in bizarrely touching, deeply morbid territory where few other films have the confidence to tread.
I’m trying my best to dance around the twists, as knowing what was going to happen would have made the whole experience much less fun. At the craziest moments my mouth was hanging open in shocked surprise, a reaction usually only reserved for enfants terrible like Lars von Trier or Michael Haneke.
Don’t get me wrong, What We Did On Our Holiday isn’t some groundbreaking statement in cinema. It’s unashamedly sentimental, skews overly broad a couple of times and a number of plotlines are rather perfunctorily concluded in the final act. But unlike most family comedies it earns its right to a sentimental ending full of hugs, tears and relieved laughter.
A great deal of the emotional heft of the film is borne on the monumental shoulders of Billy Connolly. Given Connolly’s recent diagnosis of Parkinsons and brush with prostate cancer, the role of a terminally ill, much-loved grandfather is painfully close to reality. Cementing that is – for all his mountains of charisma – Connolly’s acting range is limited to playing fictionalized versions of himself. His ‘Gordie’ is Connolly, adding an acid tinge to the children’s innocent observations, for example, that this is most likely his last birthday party.
There’s a good argument that pairing a dying Connolly character with three cutely innocent moppets is overly manipulative. But their interactions are genuinely touching and the four display a palpable bond with each other. Yes, I admit it, my lip wobbled a bit at times and, and.. excuse me I’ve.. I’ve got something in my eye.
The rest of the adult cast acquit themselves well, but with a touch less complexity than our leads. That said, Tennant and Pike’s marital strife is treated remarkably candidly with their interactions realistically venomous. Tennant in particular does an excellent job of portraying an instinctively upbeat man whose spirit is slowly being crushed, particularly when the prospect of the mother moving the children across the country is raised.
But the movie unarguably belongs to the three child actors: Emilia Jones, Bobby Smalldridge and Harriet Turnbull. God only knows what dark entity Hamilton and Jenkin are worshipping to get hold of three child actors that can handle this material, but whatever sacrifices they’re making are definitely worth it. These three navigate damn tricky dramatic ground without putting a foot wrong, and do so while keeping our sympathy firmly with them. Key to their performance is that they never, ever feel like children written by adults.
I’m happy to say that I stepped out of the cinema stunned that What We Did On Our Holiday worked so well. This is an important lesson in not prejudging films and proof that worthwhile movies can come from some pretty unlikely places.
I can't quite believe that a film as cheesy-looking as What We Did On Our Holiday is this good, but it is. It really is.