Not since the invention of fondue has 1970s cheese been this hot. This shiny, happy romantic comedy set to Abba’s greatest hits has already proved a winning formula on stage and with this big-screen adaptation it’s been taken up another notch. Meryl Streep sings her heart out here as ageing rock chick-turned-hotel owner Donna, whose daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) is about to get married on the Greek island where they live. But the wedding is thrown into chaos when three of Donna’s ex-lovers (Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgard) turn up. Each has a case for being Sophie’s father, but only one stakes a claim on Donna’s heart. It’s a feather-light story patched together with little elegance or élan, but that’s entirely fitting when the film is populated with big, brash disco numbers like Dancing Queen and Voulez-Vouz. The fun is in watching usually straight actors like Streep, Brosnan and company throwing caution to the wind and making up for weak vocals with infectious gusto.
At his prime, during the 1970s, maverick director Robert Altman would take an established genre and turn it on its head – the war movie with MASH), the western with McCabe and Mrs Miller, the private-eye thriller with The Long Goodbye. With Gosford Park he was back and firing on all cylinders, imposing the same trick on the English country-house murder mystery. A huge cast of mostly British thespians – including Richard E Grant, Emily Watson, Kelly Macdonald and Clive Owen – fleshes out the part whodunnit, part Upstairs, Downstairs satire, while Altman assuredly presents the 1930s-set drama from the servants’ perspective. The opening scene – when the guests and their maids and valets arrive at Gosford Park – is as good as anything Altman’s done in 30 years: multilayered and impeccably choreographed. Meanwhile, the dramatic pace is maintained thanks to some sparkling dialogue – the acidic Oscar-winning script is by Julian Fellowes, prior to creating hugely successful TV series Downton Abbey – and fine performances. It has all the makings of a classic, but then Stephen Fry’s bumbling detective arrives and a surfeit of irony defuses the exquisitely constructed mood.
Writer/director Rupert Wyatt’s feature debut begins with lifer convict Frank Perry (Brian Cox) attempting a break-out to be with his critically ill daughter. But what separates this prison thriller from more traditional jailbreak movies is the use of time-shifting flashbacks, as the tale cuts back and forth between the escape and earlier events. Having involved other inmates from the assortment of punks, bullies, drug dealers and drag queens inhabiting the cellblock corridors in key planning aspects, Perry’s getaway through tunnel, sewer and underground train systems doesn’t go quite as imagined. Unfortunately, the stylised, fractured structure tends to undercut the suspense, even though the redemptive finale reveals the unusual reason for its use. Nevertheless, Cox anchors the drama with a strong, silent mystique and there’s sterling support from Steven Mackintosh (as a vindictive psycho) and Joseph Fiennes (as the muscle in Perry’s crew).