When a film spends over a decade meandering in ‘development hell’, with producers abandoning it and its purpose-built production company going into administration, there’s a certain degree of trepidation that inevitably comes with said film’s eventual release. In the case of Gillies MacKinnon’s Whisky Galore! (first touted in the early noughties), the sense of wariness is only heightened by the fact that this particular long-awaited feature is a remake of a perennial Ealing comedy classic, of the sort that really don’t need remaking. Well, naysayers begone, MacKinnon’s adaption – inspired by the 1949 film from Alexander Mackendrick, the Compton Mackenzie book that inspired it, and the true story that kickstarted the chain alike – is a joy to behold.
Set on the winsome shores of the fictional Outer Hebridean island of Todday, Whisky Galore! unfolds in the midsts of the Second World War – a conflict that the island’s inhabitants have barely noticed. Their rural complacency is uprooted however when Mr Bain, the pub landlord, turns round to solemnly inform his locals that the island’s supply of whisky has dried out. And, with that, ‘the war finally came to Todday’.
So severe is the situation that one elderly islander promptly gets up, walks home and lies down on his stairs to die. At his bleak wake, a dearth of hope pervades. ‘Surely,’ one asks, ‘Winston Churchill will come to our rescue?’. Failing to come in the form of the British Prime Minister, salvation is instead delivered with the shipwrecking of the SS Cabinet Minister, a cargo vessel destined for New York and loaded with 50,000 crates of Scottish Whisky – 600,000 bottles of the water of life. All that stands in their way, is the pompous, establishment figure of Wagget (Eddie Izzard) – a home guard Captain, more Mainwaring than Montgomery. That, and the fact that it is the Sabbath and ‘The birds on Todday are not allowed to tweet of the Sabbath’ never mind the locals go on a Whisky raid.
It is true that, at times, Whisky Galore! patters through stretches so gentile that a sharp breeze might knock it asunder. Whilst such moments have seen many similar films crumble under their own whimsy, what stands MacKinnon’s work apart is the sheer beauty of it all. From Nigel Willoughby’s dazzling cinematography to Patrick Doyle’s spellbinding Celtic soundtrack, there is an enchanting quality to the film that renders an experience of it a magical pleasure. One of the justifications given by MacKinnon for the production of a remake was his assertion that modern colour had the potential to breathe new vitality into the black and white original but it is not until you have witnesses the deep blue of the sea which fills the film’s establishing shot that you can truly and uncynically understand what he means.
Touching vignettes, likewise, fill Peter McDougall’s script. In one scene the looters briefly doth their hats as the cargo ship finally sinks into Davy’s locker; they thank God for the miracle and rays of light burst through the clouds. Another sees Wagget’s wife, Dolly (Fenella Woolgar), snooker her husband at a game of…snooker, whilst official phone calls, to which he is often excluded, repeatedly cuckold him. Izzard is good value here, and well plays the character on the right side of caricature. The film, however, belongs to Gregor Fisher.
Leading a game and charming cast, Fisher (a world away from Rab C. Nesbitt) delivers a touching and warmly layered turn as Macroon – father of two daughters (Naomi Battrick and Ellie Kendrick) set, in a subplot, to marry Sergeant Odd (Harry Potter’s Sean Biggerstaff) and George (Kevin Guthrie) respectively. In substantially smaller roles, Woolgar is delightfully ditsy as Dolly and James Cosmo twinkles as the Minister fond of a tipple himself, Macalistair; whilst Tim Pigott-Smith, much missed, gives another excellent performance in his victory lap of final roles. In such talented hands, light comedy becomes rib-tickling.
No, Whisky Galore! won’t win around any staunch anti-remakeists, with some scenes almost verbatim to its predecessor. What it will do is leave audiences with a slight spring in their exiting steps. Visually and aurally gorgeous, I laughed, I cried, I beamed from beginning to end. Bottoms up!