'What We Did on Our Holiday' Dares to Laugh in the Face of Death

Children face the reality of death without sentimentality in a new British comedy that is more than just entertaining.

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What We Did on Our Holiday Written and directed by Andy Hamilton, Guy Jenkin; with Rosamund Pike, David Tennant, Billy Connolly, Ben Miller, Emilia Jones, Amelia Bullmore, Celia Imrie, Annette Crosbie

Children coming to terms with death – whether an actual loss or the idea of death – has been the theme of quite a few films, the best known (and perhaps finest) of them being French director Rene Clement’s 1952 “Forbidden Games,” which was set during the Nazi occupation. Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin, who wrote and directed “What We Did on Our Holiday,” explore the same theme in the context of a situational comedy; if there is a war in the movie, it’s the one being fought between the adults. The result is far better than might have been expected.

Ironically titled to evoke the essay pupils are asked to write when returning to school after the summer vacation, the movie focuses on an amiable yet dysfunctional family: Doug (David Tennant) has cheated on Abi (Rosamund Pike), and they intend to separate, but are keeping this plan secret from their three children. One of the movie’s essential insights is that trying to conceal things from your children is a mistake, and we have ample evidence of this in the story, one of whose heroines, young Lottie (the somber-faced Emilia Jones), carries a notebook with her to document whatever she sees and hears, perhaps in response to a persistent sense of insecurity.

What makes the movie charming, but also a bit tedious, is that almost every line in it tries to be witty or amusing, and the rapidity of the dialogue at times feels forced. The family travels together to the elaborate 75th birthday celebrations held in honor of Gordie (Billy Connolly), Doug’s father, who lives in Scotland. The gathering is organized by Gavin (Ben Miller), Doug’s pompous brother, who is married to neurotic, brittle Margaret (Amelia Bullmore). Gordie himself could not care less about the festivities; like many movie grandparents, he is far less conventional than his offspring. I don’t know where filmmakers get the idea that the moment their children reproduce, parents immediately become more colorful and eccentric than their conformist sons or daughters.

Funny and poignant

Gordie and his family also know that this birthday will be his last: he has terminal cancer, which is one reason why Gavin has decided on this lavish reunion. (He also wants to show off his success and wealth; his house in the gorgeous Scottish countryside is a monument of upstart bad taste.) Like other unconventional seniors seen in the movies, Gordie regards his own approaching death with mature humor and wisdom. His illness is another secret that the grownups in the movie try to hide from the kids, although of course it all comes out. One of the odd, yet good, aspects of “What We Did on Our Holiday” is the utter lack of sentimentality with which the children, who love their grandfather, accept this fact – whether because they can’t fully grasp it, or as a somewhat artificial dash of black humor inserted by the filmmakers.

About halfway through the film comes the central plot twist, which I will not reveal, and it in turn leads to the funny, poignant situation comedy that is “What We Did on Our Holiday.” While Hamilton and Jenkin’s movie is not likely to be remembered among the great classic British comedies, I enjoyed it, especially the events that follow after that fateful twist. These involve the local police, represented by a delightful female investigator (longtime actress Celia Imrie). Another actress I like, Annette Crosbie, makes a small appearance as a lesbian friend of Gordie’s. The movie has a charm that overrides its flaws and sweeps us along, despite the occasional sense of forced merriment (the final scene is a good example of that, although it does not ignore the implications of the story being told).

The macabre has always played a part in the best British comedies; it is innate to British humor. “What We Did on Our Holiday” offers a calculated dosage of it, sometimes leaving us with the sense that the movie could use a more substantial human core. But it is nevertheless an amusing picture whose cast, both young and old, do the good work we expect of British films. David Tennant is convincing as the father trying to maintain stability in a collapsing reality, Rosamund Pike glows from within, Ben Miller is entertaining as the silly, pretentious brother and Amelia Bullmore, whom I had not seen before, is funny as the sister-in-law on the brink of a nervous breakdown.

The children also perform their parts well; if the movie does gain validity, it is from the factual, even dry way in which they accept the imminent loss. In this I think that “What We Did on Our Holiday” offers a believable insight, enhancing the comedy with a low-key austerity that allows the movie not just to entertain, but to surprise us.