J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, May 08, 2017

Whiskey Galore!: Another Visit to Compton Mackenzie’s Tight Little Island

When the first adaptation of Compton Mackenzie’s novel was released in America, it was called Tight Little Island, because of the school marmy Hays Code, even though by 1949 it was well established a great many red-blooded Yanks enjoyed a good whiskey just as much as most Scots. However, nobody appreciated the amber libation like the salt-of-the-earth residents of fictional Todday island in the Outer Hebrides. When their wartime whiskey ration runs dry, a deep depression descends on the island. However, potential salvation sits a few feet from shore when a freighter carrying 50,000 cases of whiskey runs aground. It seems the Good Lord will provide to those who help themselves in Gilles MacKinnon high-spirited remake of Whiskey Galore! (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

When the whiskey runs dry, some of the older islanders literally give up the ghost, but for the most part, life still goes on. Booze or no booze, the daughters of crusty old postmaster Joseph Macroon both still have designs to marry. Peggy Macroon has fallen in love with Sergeant Odd, a well-liked veteran of the North Africa campaign assigned to bring some semblance of military order to the Todday Island Home Guard. More problematically, Catriona Macroon has eyes for George Campbell, the schoolmaster who has always loved under his domineering mother’s thumb.

When word of the SS Cabinet’s minister wreck reaches the good island folk, they are primed to launch their own salvage mission, but the minister insists they will have to wait until after the Sabbath. They will also have to out-maneuver the supercilious Home Guard commander, Captain Wagget. Fortunately, old Macroon will easily secure the sympathetic Sgt. Odd’s cooperation, especially when he reminds of the local engagement party custom, which obviously requires whiskey. A man just can’t get married on the island without one.

Galore! with its traditional exclamation point, is as genial as a boozy brunch at your favorite pub. They drink whiskey with their whiskey on Todday Island, but they also come together as community, defy pompous authority, respect genuine military valor, and Lord knows they keep the Sabbath. They are God’s people alright—and they still translate to the screen rather winningly.

In fact, Naomi Battrick and Sean Biggerstaff develop some altogether charming romantic chemistry as Peggy and Odd (although Ellie Kendrick and Kevin Guthrie are somewhat less engaging as the other prospective couple). Eddie Izzard definitely chews the scenery as the ramrod Capt. Wagget, but he never veers into over-the-top shtick. Frankly, he is constantly upstaged by Fenella Woolgar, who is delightfully acerbic, yet forgiving as Wagget’s wife, Dolly.

John Sessions and James Cosmo add further color and attitude as the island’s doctor and priest, neither of whom takes issue with a few dozen whiskeys to take the chill off. All the collected eccentricity is perfectly anchored by Gregor Fisher, who plays old man Macroon like a gruff but endearing curmudgeon, in an old school, Monty Woolley kind of way.

It is all quite pleasantly old fashioned, but MacKinnon helms it with sufficiently contemporary sensibilities, thereby sparing us any moments of cringiness or cheesiness that might sour our nostalgia for Ealing’s glory years. It is just a case-load of low-stress fun. Highly recommended, Whiskey Galore! opens this Friday (5/12) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

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