I have been to my fair share of funerals. They are stuffy, somber affairs where there are more tears than cheers. It is considered being morbid when you even so much as smile at a funeral. I’ve always felt that funerals, especially those of someone who fully embraced life and knew what it was to truly live, should be an opportunity to laugh, drink, and celebrate the person that passed rather than to become engulfed in sadness that seems ill-fitted to the memory the person. What We Did on Our Holiday shares my opinion and raises me one Viking funeral.
Abi (Rosamund Pike) and Doug (David Tennant) have recently separated. Together, they co-parent their three children, each with their own eccentricities. They have decide to take a road trip to the birthday of Doug’s father, Gordie (Billy Connolly). They have agreed to pretend to be a normal family so they don’t upset Gordie about Doug’s infidelity and their subsequent separation. This could be Gordie’s last birthday, because the medication that was helping control his cancer ended up putting a great strain on his heart. After taking the kids to see an ostrich farm, explaining lesbianism, and then taking them to the beach, he reveals to the children that he is dying, and would love just a simple Viking burial (where they build a floating pyre and set it aflame with the deceased warriors body and watch it float away) over having his children pointlessly squabble over unimportant issues. Gordie passes away peacefully after being visited by a vision of his deceased brother, and the children don’t hesitate to fulfill his wish.
The British have always been less constrained with what many Americans consider a faux pas. They unapologetically show mild nudity on public television and don’t bat an eye when using a swear word or two. They can even make light of almost any situation, including death and a fiery, water-logged burial of recently deceased loved one by children. See, hilarious! What We Did on Our Holiday is British comedy at its best and most awkward. They use children to deal with very adult situations in a more grown up way than the adults would have dealt with them. Writers/directors Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin show us they excel in family-centered comedies like they did with the series Outnumbered. They have shown that they can weave delicately embarrassing situations into comedic gold. The children were more the vehicles for the humor, but the adults were the ones that kept this film grounded.
David Tennant, a popular staple in British television for his portrayal of the iconic The Doctor in the hit BBC series Doctor Who, delivers a skilled performance with counterpart Rosamund Pike. Together they prove charming and infuriating enough to move the story along in an entertaining pace, highlighting the fact that adults, more often than not, behave worse than their children. One of the best parts of the film is Billy Connolly’s whimsical, yet somber performance. Many of Connolly’s characters utilize his natural, but believable, eccentricity. He never overplays his character, but instead brings another layer to his persona. In this case, it is that of a dying man whose zeal for life has given him a long and happy life. Even though he is in near-constant agonizing pain, he is able to hide it for the benefit of his family. Connolly brings the character to life (and death) with a somber dignity that I didn’t think this comedy was capable of.
Death, at least here in America, is one of many taboos that should not be joked about. No humor should ever be next to, around, or even attached to the death of anyone. It’s not like we all eventually die or anything. What We Did on Our Holiday convinces us that it is more than okay to celebrate a life well lived at a funeral as a way of remembering (and mourning) the life of the man instead of just focusing on his final moments. Life is more than just a death. This film serves as a reminder to not only to the characters in the film, but to people as a whole, that life is too valuable to spend fighting over petty things and is better spent enjoyed and lived. The film gives us real advice in that respect, and continues its verisimilitude by not betraying the realism it has established by giving us a clean, Disney-style ending where every problem is resolved and everyone lives happily ever after. The parents remain separated, the news outlets are still vultures trying to prey on the children, and the grandfather is still dead and gone.
Death is an inevitability we all must face, but that by no means makes it something we should always be devastated about. What We Did on Our Holiday emphasizes the celebration of life through masterful British comedy over typical American stiffness.
RATING: ★★★★★★★ (7/10 stars)