Dir: Phyllida Llloyd. US/UK. 2008. 120 mins.
What should have been the sunny feelgood event of the summer - the film version of popular stage musical Mamma Mia! - is merely a passably entertaining frippery which will generate revenues for Universal but maybe not ‘money, money, money’.
Indeed, it’s a case of Thank You For The Music, as the infectious, decades-old ABBA songs on which the film is anchored are the only thing keeping it afloat.
The long-running, hugely-successful stage production of Mamma Mia! is a curious hybrid - a good-natured comedy about a wedding on a Greek island constructed around some 20 ABBA songs. But while that kind of self-conscious artifice can prosper in theatre, a film requires some degree of authenticity of story and characterisation to engage an audience’s emotions. The makers of this film, all drafted in from the original London stage production, instead try to reproduce the larger-than-life camp of the play on film, failing to take into account how unforgiving the medium is of two-dimensional characters, puerile comedy and narrative sloppiness.
Unable to settle on a tone from one scene to the next - it veers between so-bad-it’s-good campfest, frantic farce, tearjerking melodrama and pantomime - the film is more exhausting to watch than amusing.
Last year’s Hairspray grossed about $200m worldwide, $118m from domestic and $82m from international; Mamma Mia! will probably be able to equal that total but this time the balance will be tipped in favour of international territories, especially Europe where ABBA music has the greater pop-cultural weight. Critical notices and word-of-mouth are unlikely to be as strong as Hairspray, however.
Set on the Greek island of Kalokairi in 1999, the paper-thin story concerns a 20-year-old beauty called Sophie (Seyfried) who is planning her wedding to Sky (Cooper). The wedding will take place at the remote hotel Villa Donna (a more obvious stage set has rarely been seen in a wide-release studio film) run by her mother Donna (Streep), a former singer who has raised Sophie alone on the island, never revealing the identity of her father.
Having read her mother’s diary, Sophie discovers that the summer she was conceived Donna had sex with three different men, all of whom she secretly invites to the island for the wedding - New York architect Sam (Brosnan), adventurer Bill (Skarsgard) and stiff British banker (Firth). She is convinced that, once she has all three of them before her she will know the identity of her father. Mayhem ensues.
Director Phyllida Lloyd, a leading UK theatre and opera director, has trouble here with both the musical numbers and the actors. The staging, shooting and cutting of the numbers, in particular a jarring Dancing Queen, is clumsy, while the performances by a distinguished cast are wildly uncontrolled. Streep tries to bring some emotional heft to Donna and there are some touching scenes between her and the talented Seyfried, not to mention a gutsy interpretation of The Winner Takes It All. However, she is undercut by the supporting players, notably Julie Walters and Christine Baranski, hysterically hammy as Donna’s childhood friends, and the three men, who try their best with underwritten roles.
The end credits are accompanied by the company dressed in ABBA stage garb singing Waterloo, and the audience should be cheering. But by then the film feels like it is demanding a goodwill it hasn’t entirely earned.
Based on her original musical book and the original idea of Judy Craymer
Director of photography
Music and lyrics
Some songs with Stig Anderson