Lesley Riddoch: Escapism from an era when hope was youthful

LET'S hear it for Pierce Brosnan. The former 007 never convinced me as James Bond – too distant, lofty and ambivalent. But cast as the principal love interest in the film Mamma Mia!, Brosnan is transformed from a male lead delivering empty displays of stylised power into a star giving his all to an impossible task. Singing.

Brosnan has become the critics' unanimous choice for the "weakest link" in the starry acting ensemble gathered for the Abba tribute film, based on a best-selling musical.

And thanks to the critics, the audience is on the edge of its communal seat as Brosnan embarks on a duet of the vocally taxing SOS with Meryl Streep (Donna) at a pitch slightly out of his own comfortable range. But amazingly, weirdly, his performance actually hits the mark.

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Brosnan is playing a guy who unaccountably leaves the young Donna to marry his fiance in America. Now – 30 years later – he's back on a Greek island as part of a ruse by Donna's daughter to find her real dad. And he's rapidly realising the mistake he made way back when.

Now plot isn't exactly what this film is about. But how should a guy sound trying to apologise to the world's most celebrated actress for dumping her? Like Aled Jones? Or like a strained, uncomfortable and even vulnerable man stepping out of his comfort zone to try and reconnect? I'm sure it wasn't intended this way, but at long last Pierce Brosnan worked as an actor because he was visibly working hard in a "less favoured" medium. Now that is performance.

Too many lead roles these days demand cynicism, not enthusiasm. Indeed Mamma Mia's cast has recently portrayed some seriously mirthless characters – Streep as the ruthless magazine editor in The Devil Wears Prada and Colin Firth as a series of strait-laced conformists in Pride and Prejudice, Love Actually and Bridget Jones.

But here, exploring themes dangerously close to their own real lives (motherhood, middle-age, loneliness, ageing, loss) are celebrated actors leaving fashionable nihilism behind and creating "feelgood" in a musical medium none had previously even tackled.

Much of the audience has been on a life journey with performers like Streep, Julie Walters and Brosnan – and at times it seemed these actors were finally on screen as versions of themselves.

The result – a happy epic of a film in which Streep allowed herself to look old, slightly ridiculous, grumpy, uncertain and mostly radiant. And that's why every middle-aged woman should watch this film.

A generation of 40- and 50-something women have watched as the intelligent and beautiful Anna Ford was dumped for ageing. Moira Stuart was next. Now, since it's summer, we are presented with endless magazine and newspaper articles about losing weight, losing cellulite, choosing the right plastic surgery and acting our bikini age on the beach. Sadly, in this warped, superficial culture, the great achievement of Helen Mirren wandering the beaches in a red bikini at 62 has been to (inadvertently) extend the tyranny of looks into old age.

Of course, it is mostly women who write about appearance, worship celebrity and buy into the beauty myth. It may even be women who sack other older women on the grounds they make viewers uncomfortable. Whatever. The judgmentalism of our age is enough to make many people withdraw from popular culture altogether.

Until something appears like Mamma Mia!

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Roughly 600 women and seven brave men (as far as I could see) crowded the cinema midweek and sang solidly, happily and quite unselfconsciously through the movie like some sort of revival meeting. Long-forgotten lyrics came tumbling out word-perfect – like oft-repeated incantations. Older women had taken daughters and stepdaughters in what resembled a sort of mass initiation rite – the chance to show sceptical teenagers what was truly cool about their own teenage days, and perhaps to watch the agonies and ecstasies of the mother-daughter relationship at a safe distance.

It's a sad reflection upon decades of hard work and even harder self-examination, but our encyclopaedic knowledge of Abba may be the only proof that 40-something women weren't born with worries, mortgages and wagging fingers.

In the radiant heyday of Abba, the ground-down mums of today chorused harmonies and coveted space-age disco outfits, imagining fondly that we were about to create a society without machismo – where men would not have automatic priority. Thirty years on nothing much has changed in the grim world of pay, conditions and working hours. Women are working in once exclusively male professions. But have we dislodged the full-time male wage as the only real indicator of worth in Scotland? Not really.

But happily, Abba is still here and for two hours, the sexist values of the world – and of world cinema – are cheerfully put on hold.

Here is a feast of men doing innocent, revolutionary things – dancing together, singing together and being plural in an apparently egoless line-up. The three male leads – Brosnan, Firth and Stellan Skarsgard – wait meekly for their cues while the real action is played out by the women. Gathered in a dusty room waiting for Donna, an ordinary scene is filled with crackling tension as the three "lead" men share an ignominious back-room, standing awkwardly in enforced idleness to be upstaged by the female lead. Each of these men is talented, confident, accomplished and familiar – and yet on this occasion, not dominant nor singular. This is cinematic gold-dust.

Abba's Benny Andersson and Bjrn Ulvaeus, two of the world's most successful songwriters, have helped produce a film for women – the audience that ignored music critics to make them millionaires 30 years ago. Let's see if their critical cinematic flop proves to be the box- office winner of 2008 as well.

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