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Non-Review Review: Hunky Dory

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2012.

There’s very little in Hunky Dory that we haven’t seen before. It’s a story set in the past about a young and idealistic teacher attempting to give her students a more rounded and useful education before they enter the big bad world. It’s set in Wales in 1976, giving the movie a bit of character and contextualising this period as the calm before the storm. Margaret Thatcher, that most divisive and controversial of British Prime Ministers, can be heard faintly on the television in the background; tough economic times lie ahead; skinheads roam the streets; and the Falklands War is just around the corner. As Vivienne, our young drama teacher, attempts to offer some guidance to students who might otherwise slip through the cracks, the sinister forces of the establishment seem to conspire against her.

Joyeux de Viv!

Marc Evans’ drama is hardly groundbreaking. It won’t lead any audience members to any epiphanies, or challenge any long-held assumptions. The outcome of the film, along with most of the plot developments, are relatively easy to predict – and the movie never really treats them as especially important. This is a feel-good musical drama with the type of message one might expect, the triumph of optimism and vitality over a stale curriculum-based education system that insists on treating children like numbers rather than people.

It’s the execution that recommends the movie. Evans has discussed how he and his producer originally intended this to be their second project together, many years ago. While he never devoted himself to it full-time, the idea has been gestating quite a while. So it’s very clear that a lot of love has gone into this admittedly straight-forward story, and the attention-to-detail and the finer points are all handled superbly. Without indulging in grit or cynicism, Evans is able to evoke a period that has long since vanished into memory.

The pupils touch her heart...

To be fair, he romanticises the period quite a bit, as is understandable in a movie about childhood, but he doesn’t shy away from shading the edges. While we might laugh at plot points like a father using “sardines on toast” and a freezer unit to connect with his children, or the idea that anybody has to use a public phone booth rather than a land-line, there’s also the harsh reality of the world outside the school walls. Skinhead gangs aren’t exactly subtle, even if their despicable behaviour is limited to a sustained (if bloodless) beating. The kids in the film seem to, based on the abundance of condoms present, enjoy an active sex life.

These are the kind of smaller and more cynical details that generally get omitted from these teenage flashbacks, but Evans instead keeps them relatively out of focus, but conceding that they exist. It’s a nice approach that adds a bit of texture to the tale that it wouldn’t otherwise have. It doesn’t necessarily offset the sort of romanticism that we typically see in movies like this (the kind of “those were the best days of our lives” sort of moments), but they do give the movie a sense of depth.

Doesn't quite make a splash...

Speaking of texture, Evans uses a rather nifty technique on the movie’s soundtrack. While some characters do use LP’s to play vintage seventies hits, most of the movie’s soundtrack is actually produced by the kids in the film – which is a nice and geeky touch. The instruments used are the instruments present in rehearsal, and the actors belt out their own versions of classic hits. My own favourite musical moment is a rendition of David Bowie’s The Man Who Sold The World, which is strange – because I don’t really like that song.

Indeed, Evans shrewdly capitalises on the pop culture of the time, filling the soundtrack with iconic and popular hits that give the movie the feel of a golden oldie. Even the sets for Vivienne’s play are vintage seventies kitsch, with giant mushrooms built into her set, and planets hanging from the ceiling. All that is missing from this psychedelic rock opera is some Janice Joplin. It’s nice, and it’s the small touches like this that help make the fairly paint-by-numbers plotting easy enough to follow.

Straight to the pint...

Minnie Driver is solid in the lead role, even if it takes a while to get past her Welsh accent – it’s just strange to hear the regional twang adopted so faithfully in a major motion picture. Driver doesn’t have too much to work with, in that she’s pretty much playing an archetype with a little extra bitchiness thrown in, but she does her absolute best. However, Robert Pugh delivers a wonderfully endearing self-deprecating performance as the school’s principle, who is eventually convinced to take a role in Vivienne’s drama. I loved his attempt to “dress casual” for rehearsal.

There are a couple of problems beyond the movie’s rather straight-forward plotting and character arcs. It is difficult, at times, to keep track of every member of Vivienne’s drama class and where their character arcs happen to be at a given moment. It’s not that the script isn’t clear, but there are quite a few of them, and I can’t help but feel the movie could have dropped one or two of the students and had a slightly stronger framework. That also might have helped flash out some of the storylines, which feel positively skeletal. In some cases, it seems like there are not consequences or resolutions to these character points, which detracts a bit from the experience.

A Minnie triumph!

Still, if you are in the mood for something light and entertaining, and don’t mind that the same ground has been covered time and time again, then it’s not a bad choice. It’s hard to fault Evans for his work here, and it’s hard to actively dislike the film. Of course, it’s also hard to truly love the film, but it is charming enough that it should entertain.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 3

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