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Non-Review Review: Absolutely Fabulous – The Movie

Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie is that it feels very much like an extended special of the classic British sit-com. Sure, the film has an expanded budget that allows for some suitably glitzy location work. Of course, the film is stuffed to the gills with even more celebrity cameos than you could shake a stick at. However, there is very much a sense that Absolutely Fabulous has not been radically transformed in the transition from goggle box to silver screen. This is very much in the spirit and style of the source material.

That is perhaps both the best and worst thing that could be said about Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie.

Saundering off...

Saundering off…

Nostalgia is very much a boom industry at the moment. After all, Patsy and Edina will find themselves competing for space with movies like Independence Day: Resurgence and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows. However, Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie belongs to a completely different tradition. This is not necessarily part of the same wave of revivals that resurrected The X-Files and promise more Twin Peaks. Instead, Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie belongs in the grand tradition of British television.

British television is inherently different than American network television. The realities of the British television industry and other cultural factors mean that British television shows cannot commit to the same steady output as American television. It is possible to binge watch quite a few classic British shows in their entirety over a weekend or so. This goes for classic comedy like Fawlty Towers or prestige drama like the House of Cards trilogy. However, not only are seasons shorter, characters and concepts tend to take extended breaks before coming back.

At the Cole face.

At the Cole face.

Part of this is down to the resurrection of cult classic shows like Red Dwarf or Yes, Minister!, but it is also down to a cultural understanding that a television character does not need a constant stream of output to remain relevant. Alan Partridge is still a fixture of British television, even if the channel and format of the shows focusing on him have changed. British television has a habit of resurrecting classic concepts for “specials”, bringing back shows like The Royal Family or Only Fools and Horses to catch up with beloved characters after a considerable gap.

This is very much the tradition to which Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie belongs. In many respects, it feels like a reunion special that somehow secured a movie budget and a theatrical release. The film comes with all the trappings of these sorts of revivals. Jennifer Saunders provides a script that is just a little bit more introspective and reflective than the television series, treating the film as a statement on her classic PR executive. There are queues of celebrities lining up to make cameo appearances. The plot is largely a framework on which to hang a series of extended jokes.

"We just need a Patsy."

“We just need a Patsy.”

This is not a bad thing. There is a reason that Edina Monsoon and Patsy Stone have latched on to the British consciousness. The two are very much parodies of a certain vacuous celebrity culture, but Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley take those two-dimensional characters and breath life into them. At its best, Absolutely Fabulous was charming and irreverent. Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie might add just a little bit of indulgence to the mix, but Saunders captures the essence of what made the show work.

Not every joke lands. Indeed, there are a number of awkward transgender-related jokes that skirt the line of good taste. There are moments at which some of the celebrity cameos threaten to overwhelm the film, and it seems like the decision to hang so much of Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie on the character of Kate Moss was a mistake if Jennifer Saunders was unwilling to recast the role. Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie never sees a cheap gag to which it won’t commit.

They say a rolling (Patsy) Stone gathers no (Kate) Moss.

They say a rolling (Patsy) Stone gathers no (Kate) Moss.

Therein lies the charm. Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie might not land all of its jokes, but it is smart enough to keep them coming at a rapid-fire rate. More than that, Saunders’ script trusts its two leads to carry the film. Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie affords Edina Monsoon and her daughter very simplistic character arcs, but it also defers almost entirely to Joanna Lumley. As supporting lead, Patsy Stone doesn’t really experience any character development. Instead, Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie trusts Lumley to be a force of nature.

The regular ensemble is great. There is a reason that Jennifer Saunders, Julia Sawalha and Jane Horrocks are perennial fixtures of British television. All three leads are capable of landing a laugh and walking the thin line between tragic and comic upon which so much British humour rests. However, Lumley is quite simply in a league of her own. Patsy Stone is not the movie’s heart in the traditional sense, but Lumley is very much the pulsing muscle that keeps the film around her in motion. She is mesmerising.

Somebody order a side of Hamm?

Somebody order a side of Hamm?

There is very little new or surprising in Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie, but that is a feature more than a problem. This is not an escalation of the television characters in the same way that Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa was consciously tailored as a feature film. Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie feels very much like a BBC special with an extraordinarily lavish budget, a host of famous faces, and a delightfully sunny location. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

In fact, it seems unlikely that Edina or Patsy would have it any other way.

4 Responses

  1. Great review. 🙂

    I love Patsy (actually I love Eddie too but as you say Patsy is a force of nature.) I know common wisdom holds that she is a parasite leeching off her BFF but honestly I admire her loyalty, that she never once seems to entertain the thought of ditching Eddie even as things go wrong(er.) There is a human being buried somewhere beneath the blonde beehive.

    As a bonus this movie has one of Eddie’s fantasies set to Peter Sarstedt’s ‘Where Do You Go To My Lovely’ which is both a great song and an absolutely perfect choice for the characters to miss the point of.

    • That’s an interesting note about the relationship.

      I think Patsy and Edina are just toxic enough that the audience doesn’t really care about one being “worse” than the other. It’s not as if Edina would be any more self-aware left to her own devices. So the fact that Patsy is effectively “leeching” – which is arguably a structural issue down to the fact that Edina is the main character and so Patsy’ involvement will generally be through her – doesn’t matter as much. And there is a genuineness to the friendship as it is written and performed. The two actors bounce brilliant off one another, and while they are (like most sit-com characters) a fairly stock archetype it is (like most great sit-com characters) the performances that reach beyond that. Indeed, that is why I think Alan Partridge works much better for me than David Brent. I think Steve Coogan is a much stronger performer than Ricky Gervais.

      • I’m also a huge fan of Alan Partridge (and Coogan is indeed brilliant, so much so it is sometimes very hard to remember Partridge is fictional.) The British seem to excell at comedic characters who are, objectively, 95% loathsome but with that 5% of desperation or despair or loneliness that makes you feel for them, just a little.

        I’m reminded of a wonderful moment in ‘Alpha Papa’ where Alan is trying to do ‘matey’ banter with his (repellent) boss about snogging Angela and he accidently let’s slip a moment of humanity, panics and immediately tries to pull back (“And then I just held her in my arms because told me she never knew her mother, and I said, “Well, my mother raised me and lived to a ripe old age. But guess what? I never really knew her.” Erm… and… To get back on track, erm…”)

      • Yep. When I was a kid, I was convinced Partridge was real. Terry Wogan’s evil (okay, inept) twin.

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