IoS film review: The Sapphire Alps

Great music, great story, but the script needs serious tuning

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The Independent Culture

Even with a different title, The Sapphires would sound like a sparkling film. It's adapted from a stage musical, which isn't necessarily encouraging, but it's also inspired by the life story of the writer's own mother, a member of an Australian Aboriginal girl group which entertained American infantrymen in Vietnam. You couldn't ask for a more promising premise. In the fictionalised version, the young women are crooning Country'*'Western numbers in an outback pub when they're spotted by a washed-up cruise ship MC, Chris O'Dowd. He buys them some sequinned dresses, teaches them about Otis Redding, and soon they're being packed off to Saigon.

Cue some great music and earthy Aussie banter, all of which makes The Sapphires preferable to Beyoncé's girl-group vehicle, Dreamgirls. But over all it's a flimsy, clunkily scripted comedy drama that ignores every question it raises. For instance, we don't learn how an Aboriginal pop group would have been received by a white audience in 1960s Australia, because we never see them perform outside Vietnam. Nor do we learn what it was like for four rural women to perform to crowds of stoned GIs in a distant war zone, because there's more authentic warfare in the average episode of M*A*S*H.

Missed opportunities come thick and fast. The screenplay touches on the connection between African Americans and indigenous Australians, but makes nothing of that connection. One character (played by Jessica Mauboy, an Australian Idol finalist) can't get through a scene without bringing up her dreams of stardom, but then suddenly the subject is dropped, never to be mentioned again. O'Dowd, at least, is likeable. But hearing an Irishman rhapsodise about the majesty of soul music serves only to remind you of The Commitments, and make you wish you were watching that instead.

Yorgos Lanthimos's Dogtooth has to be one of the most bizarre movies ever to be nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. And his follow-up, Alps, is almost as strange. Throughout the first half we haven't a clue what the characters are up to. All we know is that we're in a bleak, windswept, greeny-grey Athens, watching a series of banal conversations with something intriguingly not-quite-right about them.

It's only after Lanthimos has kept us in a state of nervous befuddlement for 40 minutes that we get the picture: the Alps is the name of a group who have pioneered their own form of bereavement counselling. For a few hours a week, the four will impersonate someone who has just died in order to help the grieving friends and relatives adjust to their loss. Yes, it's preposterous, but in Lanthimos's world of deadpan surrealism, no one questions the lunacy of the scheme Ω nor does anyone complain that the team-members' wooden impressions of their loved ones hardly constitute value for money.

Charlie Kaufman or Chris Morris might have done wonders with the concept, but Lanthimos's oblique, misanthropic black comedy is most likely to appeal to those who found The Master a bit too straightforward. It's an uncompromising film from a singular talent, but it eventually feels as if one joke is being stretched past the point of being funny.