Whisky Galore!, Edinburgh Film Festival, review: 'What makes the film so pleasurable is the humour and lyricism'

Dir: Gillies MacKinnon, 98 mins, starring: Gregor Fisher, Eddie Izzard, Naomi Battrick

Geoffrey Macnab
Thursday 30 June 2016 11:24
A scene from Whisky Galore!
A scene from Whisky Galore!

For many years there has been talk of revisiting the 1949 Ealing classic Whisky Galore!. The rarest malts have spent less time maturing in their oak casks than the producers have in trying to get this movie made. The end result, finally sampled for the first time as the closing film at this year’s Edinburgh Film Festival, turns out to share the distinctive taste of the original but now with an added flavour of nostalgia. It’s a very enjoyable affair, whimsical and dreamy but also often very barbed in its observations.

One advantage that director Gillies MacKinnon has over the Ealing version is that he is using colour. His cinematographer Nigel Willoughby fills the film with shots of rugged landscapes and of interiors lit in moody fashion.

The setting is a remote Hebridean island at the height of the Second World War. The film has barely started when total disaster strikes. “Gentlemen, my quota is finished,” the doleful barman tells his regulars. “There is no more whisky. The island is dry.” Morale plummets. On the isle of Toddy, whisky really is considered the water of life. Without it, social life grinds to a halt. That’s why the islanders react with such joy when the SS Cabinet Minister, a ship bound for New York with 50,000 cases of whisky in its cargo, runs aground not far from the shore.

Gregor Fisher plays the postmaster, Macroon, at the centre of all business on the island. He’s a widow and dotes on his pretty, mischievous daughters, Catriona (Ellie Kendrick) and Peggy (Naomi Battrick). They are his co-conspirators, operating the telephones and listening in to every conversation. Fisher (best known as TV comedy character Rab C Nesbitt) gives a beguiling performance as Macroon, capturing his geniality and cunning as well as his yearning for his lost wife and misgivings about what might happen to him when his daughters marry and leave home.

The villain is the nincompoopish Captain Waggett (Eddie Izzard), a Captain Mainwaring-like figure in charge of the local home guard. Some of the humour involving Waggett is a little forced and too obviously in the Dad’s Army vein.

As in the original, the film is packed with colourful turns from character actors. James Cosmo excels as a hellfire preacher whose own love of a tipple doesn’t stop him making sure that the Sabbath is very strictly observed. (On Sundays, you’re not allowed to turn on an engine or make a telephone call. Even the birds, it is joked, are forbidden from tweeting.) There’s a colourful cameo, too, from John Sessions as the island’s doctor, fretting over the well being of patients denied both whisky and tobacco. MacKinnon throws in some memorable comic sequences of drunken islanders lying like sea lions on the shore and then, when Customsm and Excise officers come sniffing, going to extreme lengths to hide their booty, concealing bottles in gutters and under mattresses.

Whisky Galore! is scripted by the celebrated writer Peter McDougall, best known for confrontational dramas like A Sense Of Freedom and Just A Boys’ Game. The McDougall machismo is kept in check. Instead, the filmmakers celebrate the ingenuity and camaraderie of the islanders. MacKinnon knows not to make the comedy too broad. What makes the film so pleasurable is the humour and lyricism with which it tells its rousing story of whisky-loving small timers coming together together to keep officialdom at bay.

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