Deborah Ross

Going nowhere | 3 March 2012

Going nowhere | 3 March 2012
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The first and perhaps only thing to really say about Hunky Dory is that it is anything but. It is not hunky dory at all. Instead, it is half-baked and tiresome. I’d had rather high hopes for it. It’s a ‘let’s-put-on-a-show!’ film set in a Welsh comprehensive during the long hot summer of 1976 — the summer I turned 16, as it happens — so I expected at least some of it to resonate, but its characters are so unfinished and improbabilities so plentiful and narrative so unoriginal it’s like an extended episode of Fame, only worse. I do feel rotten about saying this, yes, as it’s obviously been made with affection, and its heart is in the right place, but as I tell myself whenever I kick a puppy or drown a kitten, ‘If it needs doing it needs doing, and it’s not so bad when you get down to it.’ Seriously, it isn’t, and once you’ve done it the first time, it’s a breeze there on in.

Directed by Marc Evans, with a script by Laurence Coriat, it stars Minnie Driver as Vivienne May, one of those inspirational, Bohemian, free-spirited teachers who only ever exist in films, probably because they’d be eaten alive in the classroom. But, then, everyone at this school is a cliché, including the PE teacher, who is brutish and sadistic, an older female teacher, who is prissily conservative, a French teaching assistant obsessed by sex, ooh la la, and so on. (I can’t be bothered to list them all; I’ve got a life.)

Anyway, Miss May, who is fond of kaftans and her tambourine — yes, eaten alive, before first break probably — decides that what her final-year pupils most require is to put on a rock opera version of The Tempest, with musical numbers culled from David Bowie, Nick Drake, The Byrds. If this teen movie musical has a unique selling point at all it is only that the songs are delivered live, rather than mimed to highly polished backing tracks, as in High School Musical or Glee, but if this unique selling point has a downside it is this: the kids have the most terrifying habit of wandering off-note. Sweet, in a way, but also faintly embarrassing.

The kids? The lead is Aneurin Barnard, who smoulders handsomely, but is not allowed to do much more, which is fair enough, and the problem here isn’t performance anyhow. It’s about the characters, and how unfleshed out they are. The teenagers are all either stereotypically troubled — am I gay? Does she fancy me? — or come from stereotypically troubled backgrounds: mum’s run off with her new boyfriend; older brother is a skinhead. And so on. (Can’t be bothered to list them all. It may not be much of a life, but it’s mine and I will do what I can to protect it.) The result of such weak characterisation is that nothing has any psychological or emotional verisimilitude, nothing feels true. Plus, dramatic arcs are resolved that are never properly started while ones that are started are never resolved. At one point Miss May kisses a pupil. Now we are talking, I thought. That’s more the ticket. BUT THEN NOTHING HAPPENS!

Most tragically, you can see what the film wants from itself. It wants the grittiness of The Commitments mixed with the charm of Gregory’s Girl via the social realism of This Is England, and gets nowhere on any count. When the kids say ‘paki’ or ‘poof’ — words most certainly used at that time — it just sounds wrong, because the context isn’t right. And the improbabilities certainly pile up. Why does this school appear to have an orchestra that could compete with the LSO? Would a teacher really put a drunk pupil to bed on her sofa for the night, without making any attempt to contact the parents? Why, in the finale, is Mr Barnard dressed as Adam Ant, who didn’t have his breakthrough until 1980? Why isn’t every girl in that school burnt to a crisp? I remember that summer, and we all were.

OK, the nostalgic Seventies props are nice: the prawn cocktails, melon balls, Brut, Ford Anglias, Tricity white goods, and so-called language labs (more of a tape recorder on a desk). But everything feels like a prop, and that’s the trouble. Yes, I still do feel rotten, although would say this wasn’t as easy as stealing candy from a baby, as sometimes their mothers can get quite upset, and will chase you up the road.