Film Review: Hunky Dory (15)

Minnie Driver takes the biscuit in a classroom musical with its heart in the right place
Minnie Driver takes the biscuit in a classroom musical with its heart in the right place
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Director: Marc Evans

Running time: 110 minutes


IF YOU have sat through three High School Musicals and a Glee mockumentary in 3D, as I have, you may be cheered by the prospect of a British musical already described as “The Anti-Glee”.

After all, if you have been fed nothing but cupcakes, a bag of cheese and onion crisps sounds pretty good. As it turns out however, this is more like a Wagon Wheel – pleasant, nostalgic, but also a bit stale.

The time is 1976, an age before mobile phones, the internet and iTunes, and in a small Welsh secondary school, drama teacher Viv May is trying to put on a musical version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, accompanied by covers of the Byrds, Bowie and the Beach Boys, performed by her pupils.

Minnie Driver is pretty good as Viv, a forceful bohemian who unblushingly campaigns for her pupils to “express themselves artistically”. The movie positively swoons in admiration over this, portraying anyone who stands in her way as a bully or a bore. And yet you can’t help thinking that Viv is also an outspoken, obstinate biscuit-thief who turns a deaf ear to anyone else’s priorities, which would make her a nightmare in a real school.

However, because Laurence Coriat’s script adores Viv, it chooses to indulge her whilst ruthlessly stereotyping the rest of the staff: a teacher who’s a rule-obsessed control freak, a boor of a gym teacher, a headmaster who loves the sound of his own voice, and a French teacher who burbles about wine, cigarettes and l’amour.

Musically, the film is a little more surprising. For a start, who knew Shakespeare was that keen on ELO, performed in the style of the Langley Schools Music Project? And lead singers Aneurin Barnard and Danielle Branch sound as if they have travelled back in time from The X-Factor Winners Show, with an adolescent backing band that is tighter than many seasoned session musicians. They even boast a full brass section, which is impressive given that most schools in the 1970s struggled to furnish a class with treble recorders.

The strongest number performed is a version of David Bowie’s The Man Who Sold The World, the most unbelievable is the kid playing a Nick Drake song when Drake’s music was still obscure, and his tunings so unusual, that he was hard to copy even after his albums became more widely circulated.

Structurally, Hunky Dory tantalises its audience with the idea of suspense, the idea of crisis, the idea of controversy, the idea of character, before quickly scuttling away from any interesting consequences. A budding teacher-pupil romance is floated with a late night kiss, then dropped in the next scene. A pupil nervously comes out as gay – in an era when Mr Humphries was still mincing around in Are You Being Served – but is treated with enlightened understanding. There’s a dead dad, but no strong sense of grief. Teen passions spring up, then break up, with no real harm done.

By the time the kids stage their musical at night and outdoors, it’s become the sort of movie where half the audience will be drying their eyes, the other half rolling them. Still, if Hunky is hellishly clunky, it’s also good-hearted and well-intentioned with some laughs and decent tunes. Have I lowered your expectations enough? «

On general release from Friday