Mamma Mia!

WFTB Score: 12/20*

The plot: Bride-to-be Sophie is desperate for her father to give her away, but her mother Donna’s diary can only narrow the field of potential Dads down to three. Sophie secretly invites the trio to stay at the family’s dilapidated Greek island hotel for the wedding, but Donna discovers them, turning her world upside-down. In the chaos that follows, will there be anyone left at the altar to say ‘I do (I do I do I do I do…)?’

Let’s be entirely honest about this: without the ABBA songs, Mamma Mia! The Movie would be an utterly rubbish film, with a plot that could barely satisfy half an hour of Coronation Street and acting that would fail to get out of paper bags, or at least drive the audience into wearing them over their heads, lifting them only to see the beautiful views of the Greek island on which the action takes place.

The fact is, of course, the ABBA songs are there, so different rules apply. Mamma Mia is the film version of the first (if I remember correctly) of a new type of musical, where the story is constructed around a catalogue of pre-existing songs rather than the other way round. Meryl Streep is Donna, the weary mother struggling to look after her daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) and the crumbling hotel with more outgoings than income. In preparation for Sophie’s wedding, she is joined by best friends and former fellow songbirds, man-eater Tanya (Christine Baranski) and taciturn writer Rosie (Julie Walters). On the male side, Sophie’s letters bring possible fathers Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgard into company with each other. They all end up on the island, where their secrets unfold and lives are complicated over the course of the days leading up to the wedding, all to the driving beats of ABBA’s timeless pop songs.

It has to be said, the songs change everything. Even though some of the lyrics now make even less sense than ever (what has Glasgow – from Super Trouper – got to do with Donna’s life?), Benny Anderson and Bjorn Ulvaeus’ tunes and arrangements lift the emotion of every scene, turning it into something magically joyous, heartbreaking, or intimate. The scene where Donna helps Sophie to prepare for the wedding might be something-and-nothing, but as they sing the relatively obscure Slipping Through my Fingers, the moment is transformed. The same is true for Streep’s rendition of The Winner Takes it All, a number that distils all her frustrations of being forgotten about whilst the men have gone on with their own lives. It may not be the best vocal in the world, but the honesty of the performance is absolutely gripping.

Different rules also apply in terms of casting, the choice essentially falling between casting star names and praying they have some sort of a voice, or choosing known singers in the hope that moviegoers will warm to them anyway. Mamma Mia takes the former route, choosing stars (to be kind to Baranski) in the six middle-aged roles and trusting to luck. In the main, they do a good job, Baranski and Streep in particular proving to have talent. The film does occasionally totter on the edge of embarrassment, listening to Brosnan proving a particularly nervy experience; and whenever the ‘oldies’ are called upon to dance, there is a slight twinge of agony as another memory of The Deerhunter or GoldenEye is dislodged from your mind. But somehow, you feel that Streep, Walters, Firth et al are knowingly larking about at the same time as their characters get on with the story, which helps with the fun of the proceedings.

As for the younger actors, Amanda Seyfried is an interesting choice as Sophie. These things are entirely subjective, of course, but to me she’s a pretty, bouncy girl with a strong but not particularly lovely voice; I think this was a conscious decision, however, as she deflects as little attention as possible away from her mother and fathers, who have the interesting tales to tell. Having, say, a Scarlett Johansson or Keira Knightley as the daughter would have skewed the film undeservedly towards the daughter; and at least Seyfried can act, which is more than you can say for the fiancé Sky (Dominic Cooper) or any of his bland, if athletic, friends. The film’s weakest moments occur when Streep and Co are not on screen, although Christine Baranski’s energetic performance just about saves a version of Does Your Mother Know?

There are other gripes to be had: I’m not sure that everything on the island needs to be so resolutely turquoise, for one thing; for another, the convenient pairing-up that takes place on the wedding day is too saccharine for my tastes. However, Phyllida Lloyd knows exactly what kind of film Mamma Mia is and what her (largely female) audience wants: she delivers on light, escapist fun, and turns out entertaining and impeccably-arranged songs to hum along to. You would have to be a complete artsy snob, or in a terribly bad frame of mind, to complain about that.

NOTES: My original score for this was 13, which now appears a smidgen high given that the film is a pure confection with flaws. However, I maintain that a film that sets out to entertain and do nothing else is just as valid, and sometimes more so, than ‘better’ films with worthy messages that get unbearably tiresome after 20 minutes.

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