Sparkly cure for the blues

O’dowd has the X fac­tor, though there’s not much soul in The Sap­phires, writes Don­ald Clarke

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - REVIEWS -

THE SAP­PHIRES ★★★ Di­rected by Wayne Blair. Star­ring Chris O’Dowd, Deb­o­rah Mail­man, Jes­sica Mauboy, Shari Sebbens, Mi­randa Tapsell, Tory Kit­tles, Eka Darville, Lynette Narkle PG cert, gen­eral re­lease, 103 min DO YOU feel good yet? Do you? Do you?

If not, then the mak­ers of this di­vert­ing Aus­tralian mu­si­cal will be enor­mously dis­ap­pointed. Few films have worn their sup­posed “feel-good” cre­den­tials so con­spic­u­ously. The pic­ture fea­tures a group of plucky un­der­dogs. It in­vites you to sing along and dance in the aisles. It ends with ir­re­sistible monochrome im­ages of the group that in­spired the story.

Heck, it’s even got Chris O’Dowd – a face that in­vites smiles – grin­ning warmly from the poster. What could pos­si­bly go wrong?

Well, as it hap­pens, not all that much. The Sap­phires is cer­tainly at home to corn, and the lim­ited bud­get shows through at its tat­tered edges. But it should do won­ders for those still suf­fer­ing from Mamma Mia! with­drawals.

We be­gin in a balmy in­car­na­tion of 1960s Aus­tralia that, for all the lin­ger­ing parochial­ism and ugly racism, still seems as re­as­sur­ingly brown as the older ver­sion touted in much-mourned soap The Sul­li­vans.

Three in­dige­nous Aus­tralians are au­di­tion­ing for their lo­cal tal­ent show. Their take on a creaky coun­try tune is clearly the stand­out per­for­mance. But – just as the X Fac­tor judges favour tune­less camp nov­elty acts over melo­di­ous mid­dle-aged war­blers – the archetyp­i­cally fusty or­gan­is­ers feel obliged to hand the prize to a less glitzy white act. Hap­pily, the ami­able Dave, a mildly al­co­holic Ir­ish wan­derer, is per­suaded to man­age the group and he sets out to se­cure them a gig en­ter­tain­ing the troops in Viet­nam.

How quickly we have come to rely on O’Dowd. In the past few years he has evolved into the sort of ac­tor whose very pres­ence can turn sludge into soup. It’s not just his abil­ity to punch a line with such ec­cen­tric stresses that com­edy emerges where none was in­tended. His vul­ner­a­bil­ity makes even the great­est heel seem lik­able.

Dave is not, of course, a ter­ri­ble fel­low. This isn’t the sort of film that in­vites mon­sters into the fore­ground. He is, rather, a clas­sic re­deemable rogue who needs the love of a good woman. Sure enough, he soon falls for plucky Gail (Deb­o­rah Mail­man), the bright­est girl in the group.

In one un­for­tu­nate mo­ment, O’Dowd’s Ir­ish­ness proves in­con­ve­nient. A eu­phoric speech about the joys of soul mu­sic – to­wards which the tit­u­lar Sap­phires are nudged – would, even if de­liv­ered by an An­tiguan, in­vite com­par­isons with sim­i­lar rou­tines from The Com­mit­ments. Spo­ken by a Mullingar man, it may cause Roddy Doyle to fume qui­etly in his lair.

That noted, it’s hard to avoid the con­clu­sion that, with­out Chris, The Sap­phires would feel un­bear­ably in­sub­stan­tial. This is not to sug­gest the home ac­tors are any­thing less than charm­ing. Chew­ing their way through the num­bers with great en­thu­si­asm, they swell the screen with en­ergy throughout.

Mail­man – sur­vivor of the orig­i­nal Aus­tralian stage show – is par­tic­u­larly im­pres­sive. Jes­sica Mauboy, an alumna of Aus­tralian Idol, ex­er­cises her pow­er­ful lungs at ev­ery op­por­tu­nity. How­ever, those stage ori­gins do show through. Too much of the per­func­tory ac­tion feels like a hold­ing pat­tern be­tween rous­ing sin­ga­longs. The un­stop­pable de­ter­mi­na­tion to make us, yes, feel good oc­ca­sion­ally feels a lit­tle op­pres­sive.

War­wick Thorn­ton, di­rec­tor of the ex­cel­lent Sam­son and Delilah, re­turns to cin­e­matog­ra­phy du­ties and works hard at in­fus­ing the im­ages with sweaty mi­asma. But, though lo­ca­tion snip­pets of Shang­hai do add Asian au­then­tic­ity, many of the Viet­nam se­quences have the stu­dio-bound, con­strained feel of an early M*A*S*H episode.

Still, only the mean­est of spir­its will fail to find any­thing to en­joy in The Sap­phires. Even if the main body of the pic­ture leaves you cold, the clos­ing shots of the real-life group will surely drag a tear from those re­luc­tant ducts. Feel good, damn you!

En­ter­tain­ing the troops: Chris O’Dowd (right) plays the Ir­ish man­ager of The Sap­phires

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