We all know what a worldwide phenomenon Mamma Mia! has become. The stage show is still running in London and no doubt hundreds of other cities; the touring production comes around again and again faster than you can say Chiquitita tell me what’s wrong. The original movie made over $550 million profit at the box office. The only surprise is that it’s taken ten years for this second film to arrive.
You’ll remember that Donna Sheridan made her way to a remote Greek Island and converted a ramshackle old farm building into a rather charming hotel. You’ll also remember that over the course of a rather wild few days, she had managed to sleep with three different guys, one of whom won the Lucky Sperm award and helped create little Sophie nine months later. The original Mamma Mia is Sophie’s story of inviting all the potential fathers to her wedding to Sky (Murdoch gets everywhere) in the expectation that she would instantly “know” which was her dad – and of course she can’t identify which one it is, so they all become her dad. Add Donna’s two pals (who made up the group Donna and the Dynamos), sun, sea, sex, and the best of Abba, and it was a dream hit.
So Mamma Mia – Here We Go Again is a sequel; yet it’s also a prequel, by employing the cunning tactic of running the story of Donna’s journey from finishing university to chancing upon the farmhouse, alongside the story of Sophie organising a relaunch of the hotel which has gone to rack and ruin, presumably because a year ago Donna died; we don’t know why. Did you know Donna died? By the end you’ll have it drummed into you. Mamma Mia 2 is set in both 1979 and 2018; and with Mamma Mia (the stage show) having been launched in 1999, you basically have reference points to the same story and the same people in the same places over three generations.
I know this film has had some great reviews and all my friends who have seen it have been knocked over by its brilliance, several having seen it twice already. So, I ask myself, have I turned into a true Mr Grumpypants – and if so, is Mrs Chrisparkle even more of a Mrs Grumpypants, because she’s more critical of it than me – or has everyone else been drinking from the waters of Lethe and simply lost their senses? I just couldn’t help myself from constantly checking my watch throughout the film, primarily because I was wondering, what is the point of this film and where is it going? The answer, incidentally, as we eventually find out, is the Christening of Sophie’s baby. But basically it tells us a story that we already know, and I’m afraid I didn’t find that particularly interesting. Reconfirming the original tale is like simply baking the same cake all over again. And I have to say, considering Screen 1 of the Errol Flynn was sold out, largely to all female parties who were quaffing plenty of vino, the atmosphere in the room was totally flat. No audible reactions, very few laughs, minimal “seat dancing” – just a bit reserved for Super Trouper at the finale.
Don’t get me wrong – I don’t think it’s a bad film. There are many enjoyable sequences, a few laugh out loud moments, and the music is exceptionally good. In particular, the musical arrangements are superb, and the way some of the songs dovetail into the story and, especially, the setting, is really creative. Hugh Skinner as Young Harry (inspired casting) serenading Young Donna (Lily James) at a Napoleon-themed Parisian restaurant with an outrageous Waterloo routine is very funny. Jeremy Irvine, as Young Sam, singing Knowing Me Knowing You: “Walking through an empty house, tears in my eyes, here is where the story ends, this is goodbye” as he sadly picks his way through the decrepit old building, is a true highlight. Young Donna singing I Have a Dream as she first encounters the old farmhouse, almost bumping into the modern-day occupants as she walks around, was also very impressive. Lily James, again, singing my favourite Abba song The Name of the Game, as Young Sam lies in bed beside her. I’d happily watch all those performances again, although preferably as individual pop videos, rather than sit through the film once more. The boats full of partygoers arriving at the island, all singing Dancing Queen, makes for a spectacular visual image, although I did find it a little old-fashioned. I’m sure there’s a similar scene in The Song of Norway. Mrs C’s reaction was that it merely emphasised what a good song Dancing Queen is. She wasn’t so convinced by the young singers in the film, and felt that they just showed how much better Agnetha and Anna-Frid were than any of them. She wasn’t at all impressed with what she calls Lily James’ X-Factor style singing. Ouch.
Mind you, the film started off badly for me. The first scene: New College, Oxford, 1979 (the caption told us so) and recently graduated Donna Sheridan is invited to give the valedictory address to all her newly graduated colleagues, including her two Dynamo pals, Tanya and Rosie. The setting was, clearly, New College; the girls were larking about in New College Lane; the graduates were all bedecked in their Oxford B. A. gowns (white fur – absolutely accurate), the masters all wearing gowns representing more advanced degrees. Such attention to detail. What a shame, then, that they overlooked the simple fact that 1979 was the first year that women undergraduates were admitted into most of the previously all-male colleges – and New College was among them. If Donna and all her female graduates had undertaken three-year courses then they would have gone up in 1976, when they wouldn’t have been eligible to study at New College. Did nobody realise this? Did nobody question it? As a second-year Oxford undergraduate at the time, all these extra women in town was Big News, believe me. This basic error had me tutting all the way through When I Kissed the Teacher, and prevented me from enjoying it. Even Bjorn’s uncomfortable looks at being sashayed round by the performing girls didn’t make me crack a smile.
I’m going to be even more controversial here. I know a lot of people found the film very moving, and I expect the scene that really did it for them was the Christening scene at the end (I’ll say no more, because I don’t want to spoil it for you). My reaction was that it was sweet, but nothing more. Mrs C’s and my pre-prepared packs of Travel Kleenexes stayed firmly in our pockets. But then, I must say, I found the constant references to the now dead Donna rather wearing. It was funny when the references were just designed to make Julie Walters’ character cry (sounds cruel, but this is Julie Walters we’re talking about, she knows precisely how to make a script work). But as the film progressed, Donna’s death, and Pierce Brosnan’s suitably morose expression because of it, just became mawkish. Maybe it would have brought a bit of a spark to the piece if they’d managed to give Harry some gay romance on the island – if you remember, he was outed at the end of the first film – but instead they have him safely dancing alongside women in the big numbers, which I think was probably an opportunity missed.
The relentless tying together of the 1979 account and the 2018 account of the tale becomes tiresome. It’s fine (I think) to have Tanya just as man-hungry today as she was forty years ago, and for Rosie to be as equally unsuccessful with men now as she was then; those are true character traits. But – for example – the sheer staginess of the repetition of a “wise local” anticipating an unexpected great storm forty years later was too much for Mrs C, who shrank further down into her cinema seat with her head in her hands.
The only real difference to the sequel element from the prequel element – and I guess you could call it progress – is the sudden unforeseen appearance of Cher as Ruby Sheridan, Sophie’s absentee grandmother, who’s never done anything to forge a bond between her and her granddaughter. She looks immaculate; Mrs C thought it was a shame that as she’d had so much Botox she couldn’t visually emote. But I rather thought that worked in an ironic way; Cher can’t show emotion, and nor can Ruby, so in one respect it’s perfect casting. And I have to say, even though I would never count myself as a Cher fan, I really enjoyed her performance of Fernando.
The performances are all perfectly good: Lily James looks great and has just the right amount of carefree enthusiasm for a life of adventures to be particularly convincing. Julie Walters and Christine Baranski renew their comedy double act as the two remaining Dynamos and brighten up the screen whenever they’re on. The scenes with the three young suitors are all played with a great sense of holiday romance, and did indeed flesh out (if that’s not an unwise expression) the bare bones of Donna’s fanciful flings across Europe. And there’s a fun cameo from Omid Djalili as a Greek Customs Officer – remember to stay watching right until the very end, after the credits.
But the film didn’t move me in any way; it didn’t make me want to dance a sirtaki through the streets of Northampton, I didn’t feel anything “life-enhancing” about it, in the same way that everyone else seems to. It was just there; I watched it; it was fine; and then it finished. And now I don’t need to think about it again. For all you people who loved it, I’m jealous!