Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 17 September 2014

Mamma Mia: My, my, how can we resist them?

As big fat wedges of summer cheese go, Meryl Streep camping it up in the new Abba-inspired movie is hard to beat. Take a chance? That’s the name of the game, says big softie Noel McAdam Dominic Cooper and Amanda Seyfried

Meryl Streep stars in Mamma Mia!

Mamma Mia! (PG, 108 mins) Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan, Julie Walters, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgard

So what is it about this Greek island where people gather to sing Abba songs?

At last, the film of the international stage show based on the boxed sets of one of the most sucessful pop groups of all time, is with us.

And as a feel-good night out, with a sharp-witted play mapped onto the Abba franchise, Mamma Mia! is already a pop-culture phenomenon.

Here they go again ... my, my, how can you resist them?

Though I cannot speak from personal experience, this is the closest cinema has ever got to the ultimate hen night experience.

A whole series of skillfully realised sequences — particularly Dancing Queen, Take a Chance on Me, Does Your Mother Know (That You’re Out) and The Winner Takes it All — wonderfully capture the excess and exuberance of the Abba oeuvre.

Shot in stunning primary colours, and cleverly edited, this is a movie with summer written all over it. But the relentless emphasis on fun is also the result of all the stars passing on the impression they’re having a hell of a good time.

Sure-thing Streep certainly throws herself into the production, superbly performing the title track, Winner Takes it All, and others, with the verve and force of a woman of half her stage-craft.

But, while it’s good to see post-Bond Brosnan maintaining his star status, he has the sort of voice that makes you long for Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady — and he was terrible!

When Pierce first launches into SOS you immediately realise that indeed he needs saving, from himself. Positively Pierce-ing.

As everyone knows the film fuses a kind-of fable —one young female’s search for her true father — with the Abba songbook.

Inevitably some songs prove a better fit than others, to the extent that when Streep mentions there are problems with the toilets flushing you expect they are about to break into Waterloo.

But once you get over the sight of Streep in dungarees, you’ll probably go along with the bubbly, holiday atmosphere of it all. She plays middle-aged Donna who left behind three men to raise her daughter in an idyllic setting and of course, she’s been broken hearted, blue since the day they parted. Why, why did she ever let them go?

That’s what her about-to-be-married daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) wonders, so she invites all three (Brosnan, Firth and former Swedish teen superstar Stellan Skarsgard) to the wedding, without telling mum.

“Typical,” says Rosie (Walters, second only in the honours stakes to Streep throughout). “You wait 20 years for a father and then three show up at once.”

Of course, the course of true love never did run smooth and there is a tiny Shakespearean wink as various revelations and epiphanies tumble through the festivities. Honey, honey, how they’ll thrill you. Uh-huh.

Abba’s Benny and Bjorn had big hits coming out of their armpits, so we have a lot of numbers to get through. Often there is but a snatch of dialogue between them and sometimes one song just fades into the next. With the result that, at the end of some sections, it almost becomes a case of “No, thank you for the music”. Except, of course, that Abba were kings of karaoke before karaoke was invented.

It is not just the location, the entire translation to film puts pop in an operatic setting, not surprising since the director is Phyllida Lloyd, whose work has been in British theatre where she has earned plaudits for opera.

Popera suits the style of many Abba tunes, not just the ballads, but Walters and Firth are able to get away with a theatrical, musical approach.

There is no distinction, however, between Abba material; we have them at their most awful (Super Trouper and Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!), tracks like Knowing Me Knowing You are included only as instrumentals and others — in particular the superb One of Us — are missing altogether.

But there are also much lesser-known songs than the Greatest Hits, especially Slipping Through My Fingers, from The Visitors album about those delicate mother-daughter relationships.

They’ve managed to squeeze a more than two-hour stage show into a 100-minute movie, which is some going, and still take a final nod to the origins.

With Sweeney Todd earlier in the year, musicals must surely be poised for a major comeback.

****

Now showing at cinemas across Northern Ireland.

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