Cast: Gregor Fisher, Eddie Izzard, Naomi Battrick, Ellie Kendrick, and Kevin Guthrie
Director: Gillies MacKinnon
98 minutes (PG) 2016
Widescreen ratio 16:9
Arrow blu-ray region B
[released 6 November]
Review by J.C. Hartley
If you’ve ever read one of my reviews before, and there are so many of them on VideoVista and its sister site The Zone that I would hope you have by now, then you will know that I’m no fan of remakes. Especially when the original is considered to be something of a ‘classic’. To be fair, although I’m more than familiar with the 1949 film made by Ealing, one of my favourite studios, I approached this new version with high hopes. I see in my 2011 review of the original I mentioned Ealing’s slyly subversive tone, at odds with the cosy ‘little England’ atmosphere thought by some to inhabit their films.
In fact, while Ealing’s output was often anarchic and anti-establishment, the final reel tended to impose some form of belated moral censure. Hence Louis D’Ascoyne Mazzini, seemingly having got away with murder realises he has left a confessional memoir in his prison cell in Kind Hearts And Coronets (1949), the forces of law and order finally catch up with mild-mannered bank-robber ‘Dutch’ Holland in The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), and the gang in The Ladykillers (1955), having pulled off their heist, end up by murdering one another. Similarly, while the inhabitants of the Outer Hebridean island of Todday stave off the lack of uisge beatha ‘the water of life’ by salvaging ‘export only’ spirit from a sinking cargo ship in Whisky Galore (1949), by the end of the film the whisky drought is back in force. I was happy to see such nonsense was avoided in this remake, or ‘reimagining’ as the producers’ prefer.
The novel Whisky Galore (1947) by Compton Mackenzie, was based on the running aground of the S. S. Politician off Eriskay in 1941, while carrying 28,000 cases of malt whisky and a substantial volume of cash. In 1918, Mackenzie had been chosen as one of the promising ‘younger generation’ of novelists by Henry James in an essay J.B. Priestley described as, ‘a piece of literary criticism so involved, so inscrutable, that some of the writers it dealt with do not know to this day whether he was praising them or blaming them.’ Priestley went on to observe in 1928 that Mackenzie had not lived up to the promise of his early novels Carnival (1912), and Sinister Street (1914), and, ironically, he is probably best known now, if at all, for Whisky Galore. Mackenzie’s sequel to Sinister Street was filmed in 1935 as Sylvia Scarlett, starring Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant.
The plot to Whisky Galore is laughably simple. In the midst of World War Two, the island of Todday is suffering the dreaded whisky drought brought on by rationing. During a fog, a passing cargo vessel, the S.S. Cabinet Minister, runs aground on the notorious Skerry Dubh rocks and the crew abandon ship. Seeing this as the workings of providence the islanders prepare to salvage some of the 50,000 cases of whisky bound for the United States. Unfortunately, the ship has run aground on a Saturday and, as a flotilla sets out from the island, the church clock chimes for midnight and the start of the Sabbath, upon which no task of work may be undertaken. Despite the delay the islanders do indeed manage to liberate a substantial portion of the cargo before the vessel sinks. The local Home Guard commander Captain Waggett (Eddie Izzard) foolishly decides that protecting the cargo from looting comes within his remit, and sets out to confound the islanders’ salvage operation, and then catch them with their bounty when they outwit him.
At the heart of the story is the local postmaster Macroon (Gregor Fisher), and his melancholy realisation that his two eligible daughters are about to take the first steps into matrimony which will deprive him of the solace of their company. Peggy (Naomi Battrick) is in love with local schoolmaster George (Kevin Guthrie), and seeks to extricate him from under the thumb of his domineering mother. Catriona (Ellie Kendrick) is in love with Sergeant Odd (Sean Bickerstaff) an El Alamein veteran, who has returned to the island to train the Home Guard, as second-in-command to Waggett.
Macroon Sr. explains to Odd that for him to marry Catriona there must first be a prenuptial celebration without which the marriage cannot take place, and the celebration requires whisky. No whisky, no celebration; no celebration, no wedding. Odd defers to the obvious blackmail, and slated to guard the shoreline facing the sinking craft he allows the villagers to overpower him in their mission to salvage the booze. Having stowed the cases of scotch in a hidden cave, the islanders are betrayed by the local innkeeper who sees his livelihood at risk from the abundance of free whisky. Waggett calls in the Excise and a frantic operation is launched, first to hide the drink during a house-to house search, and then to spirit the spirits away from their hiding place.
A curious sub-plot concerns the presence on the island of the mysterious Mr Brown, posing as a tweed salesman. Macroon listens in on Brown’s telephone call to Waggett’s wife asking her to urge the Captain to secure a red attaché case from the wreck. Obviously, this would prove an impossible task for Waggett to perform and the message is wholly intended for the eavesdropping Macroon. The case proves to contain personal letters from the recently-abdicated Edward VIII to Mrs Simpson, and other correspondence hinted as relating to an interesting offer of royal reinstatement from a certain continental despot, the second such reference in the film. Brown is obviously some lackey of Whitehall, but why would the letters be going to America? The purpose of this sub-plot, beyond mere padding, is hard to ascertain, perhaps the writer is vehemently republican and wanted to avoid the film being chosen for a royal premiere?
The film ends with both pairs of lovers united in matrimony, and Waggett temporarily in disgrace after a case of ammunition he returned to the mainland was discovered to contain whisky, hidden there during the house-to-house. Macroon finally cracks a smile and the island gives itself up to drinking and dancing. To say I enjoyed this film while on the wagon (only two beers in five weeks), says much for the good-natured entertainment it provides, although, as I lay in bed waiting in vain for the oblivion of sleep, my mind did tend to linger on the three and a half bottles of whisky (and one whiskey) I had stowed in a downstairs cupboard.
The extras reel consists of interviews with the principal members of the cast. What comes across is a genuine affection for the material and an obvious enjoyment of the whole exercise. The younger members of the cast, that is Battrick, Kendrick, Guthrie and Bickerstaff, have nothing but good things to say about the experience of performing with Fisher and Izzard. Slainte.