A BBC Films production from the minds behind Outnumbered, What We Did on Our Holiday often looks and feels like an extended sitcom episode rather than a film. As visually inventive as American efforts like Community can be, British sitcoms have largely failed to catch up on a formal level, so this is meant as a detriment. Just about the only moment that transcends this aesthetic quality is actually something of a major plot spoiler, but let’s just say it involves Vikings and the sea. And now to get into how a film called What We Did on Our Holiday could possibly even have something like a shocking plot twist.
Abi (Rosamund Pike) and Doug (David Tennant) take their three kids on a family vacation up to Scotland to spend time with Doug’s ailing father, Gordie (Billy Connolly), for the old man’s birthday. Abi and Doug instruct their children (played by Emilia Jones, Bobby Smalldridge and Harriet Turnbull) to not suggest any of the bickering and living apart Mummy and Daddy happen to have been partaking in lately. Yes, Abi and Doug are heading for divorce, but they aren’t being at all upfront with their kids about it, though elder daughter Lottie (Jones) has her hunches. The children are similarly unaware that Gordie is probably not long for this world, and further secrets regarding their extended family come bubbling to the surface once up in Bonnie Scotland.
For those not in the know, Outnumbered, which writer-directors Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin are also behind, thrives on a kind of ‘generational warfare’ brand of comedy in which the central gimmick is that most of the children’s dialogue is semi-improvised. A cute kid will say something innocently shocking, usually on the basis of naiveté, and one of the parents will look appalled or bemused; cue laughter (apparently). What We Did on Our Holiday is pretty much that, except instead of being just a lightly amusing half-hour diversion, this 95-minute expansion of the farcical formula actually tries to make some sort of comment about big universal truths beyond just notions of familial bonds, such as love and death (ooh, can you guess the twist yet?).
A big part of why the plot fails is that these characters come across as utterly hollow strawmen for Hamilton and Jenkin’s manipulations, despite the use of semi-improvised flourishes to make them potentially seem more real. The madcap actions of the kids (post-plot twist) veer into the fantastical, but there’s not one moment in which the characterisation feels at all credible. Where Outnumbered works by running on children’s naivety, the big-screen update (of sorts, as this doesn’t star anyone from the show) instead runs on active stupidity from kids and adults alike. There are certain comedy scenarios where you can get away with that old chestnut of a child taking a figurative statement literally and making a big mistake. It doesn’t work so well when it involves death, deception and attempts at dramatic heft.
Josh Slater-Williams (@jslaterwilliams) is a freelance writer based in Glasgow, Scotland. Alongside writing for Vague Visages, he is currently the managing film editor at Sound On Sight, and a regular contributor to independent British magazine The Skinny.