By Peg Aloi
What makes this somewhat derivative movie soar is its music.
Fisherman’s Friends, directed by Chris Foggin. On Demand and digital streaming.
A sub-genre of British contemporary feel-good movies comes with a checklist of must-have tropes: an unlikely meet-cute love story, a guy whose professional life is glamorous but empty, a subculture steeped in vintage aesthetics or traditions, and, not always but often, diagetic music performance. Examples include The Commitments, Pride, Four Weddings and a Funeral, and Love, Actually. Struggles, yes, but there’s always a happy, redemptive ending. The music swells and accompanies moving montages or pivotal plot points. This is not the dark realistic working-class Britain of Mike Leigh, or Ken Loach, or Lynne Ramsay. The vision is relentlessly cheery, not terribly complex, and its formula and tone can be easily imitated by further entries in the series. Though it must be said that Alan Parker’s The Commitments, based on Roddy Doyle’s novel, felt fresh and original in 1991.
Based on a true story, Fisherman’s Friends contains all these tropes but features a previously unseen setting: Cornwall. In a tiny fishing village, a group of local guys who work as fishermen and on-call emergency rescuers have a singing group called Fisherman’s Friends, a moniker inspired by the popular throat lozenges. They’ve been singing sea shanties at the local pub for years, sometimes raising funds for charity causes. When four friends from London who work for the recording industry go to the village on a weekend jaunt, they hear the singers’ lusty harmonies. Danny (Atonement’s Daniel Mays), is not charmed — at first. One of his pals, who’s also his boss, decides to play a prank and pretends he’s interested in securing a recording contract, and tasks Danny with convincing the singers to record an album. As Danny works on schmoozing the fishermen, his friends continue to keep the prank going, even leaving his bag behind while they go back to London, stranding him in the coastal village of Port Isaac.
Danny’s happy to stay an extra couple of days at the bed and breakfast run by single mom Alwyn (Black Mirror’s Tuppence Middleton) and daughter Tamsyn, though they got off on the wrong foot when he and his buddies arrived acting like clueless big city tourists. He convinces the band to cut a record and then discovers he was pranked; now he has to figure out what to do given the lack of a real offer from his company. What follows is a series of obstacles, triumphs, and failures, all accompanied by hearty shanties sung in 10-part harmony, and the occasional pop song. Alwyn’s dad Jim (James Purefoy), whose wife left him for a rich man, is leery of Alwyn getting her heart broken, and takes a while to warm up to Danny. For his part, Danny’s time in the tiny village makes him realize that life in the big city is sorely lacking. He is charmed by Alwyn and her daughter, but also by the bracing sea air and the down-to-earth authenticity of this tightly knit community.
The somewhat predictable plot contains its share of emotional highs and lows and the actors are more than up to the feel-good task. They even manage to elevate the somewhat corny dialogue. But what makes this somewhat derivative movie soar is its music. I am a traditional singer myself, and the Fisherman’s Friends soundtrack of shanties doesn’t disappoint, though I wish the score was a bit less reliant on Hollywood style strings and swelling horn sections. The vocal arrangements are exhilarating — they feel both improvised and well practiced. Of course, not everyone loves the villagers’ music; there are some potential backers who are turned off by the small town twee stylings. But, once the band sets off to London in search of its elusive deal, a casual conversation in a pub gets things rolling: a not unheard of occurrence in this country, where pub culture still brings like-minded people together. Jim answers a young man’s question about sea shanties by softly singing one that eventually inspires everyone in the pub to sing. The heart-filling sound of people brought together in song is about as close to timely perfection as you can get right now. Many of us are waiting impatiently at home for the chance to join once again with our fellow humans, to make noise, to bond over beer, to connect and share our stories. Fisherman’s Friends gives us a taste of that fellowship, and it is a balm for these sore times.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for the Boston Phoenix and member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes on film, TV, and culture for web publications like Vice, Polygon, Bustle, Mic, Orlando Weekly, Crooked Marquee, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at themediawitch.com.