A film that is far different from what you might expect given the title and the marketing material, What We Did on Our Holiday is not so much a National Lampoon-style crazy vacation comedy as it is an amusing examination of the burdens of family responsibility and how we allow our lives to get in the way of what, and who, is most important. Don’t get me wrong, amid the musings on death, divorce and parenting there are a lot of laughs to be had, but there are myriad moments of poignancy and pathos amidst the mirth that ultimately lift the film beyond more conventional fare. Furthermore, the implication that David Tennant (Dr Who), Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl) and, to a lesser extent, Billy Connolly are the stars of the film is somewhat misleading as it is a trio of young performers in Bobby Smalldridge, Emilia Jones and Harriet Turnbull who are the standouts here. Jones is exceptional as the oldest of three siblings caught in the middle of all manner of feuding and dysfunction when a family gathers to celebrate what will be the final birthday for family patriarch Gordie (Connolly).
It is the honesty of youth that provides so much of the humour, with the kids often saying exactly what they are thinking and exposing the ridiculousness of the adults around them along the way. Tennant and Pike are Abi and Doug McLeod, a no-longer- happily-married couple whose intentions are to simply survive the celebrations being held at the luxury estate of Doug’s brother Gavin (Ben Miller) in the Scottish highlands without anybody becoming aware of their impending divorce. Needless to say, when it comes to keeping such a secret, the kids are their biggest liability. Whilst the early moments are quite fun as the confined space of the car leads to all manner of irritations and arguments, the film initially seems to be on a predictable narrative trajectory. However, once they arrive in Scotland, the story takes on a much more serious tone with some unexpected twists that combine humour and heartache to great effect.
With visions fit for a tourism campaign, the cinematography captures the landscape in all its glory and there is the smattering of eccentric characters so typical of British comedies, such as the lesbian Ostrich farmer and the leader of the band hired to play at the party. Tennant and Pike are fine enough, bringing a sense of chaotic chemistry to their characters. Connolly is uncharacteristically subdued as the grandfather who has, much more so than those around him, come to terms with his mortality. It is the kids who shine though and there is a large portion of the film in which the adults are nowhere to be seen as Lottie, Mickey and Jess are forced to deal with a circumstance they could not possibly have foreseen. Jones does a remarkable job as Lottie, a young girl wise beyond her years takes charge when an outing at the beach takes a most unexpected turn.
Unfortunately, there are some bum notes along the way, such as the sheer ridiculousness (and not in a funny way) of Gavin, a character so rude, self-absorbed and ignorant that his last minute transformation into something other than a vile caricature is very hard to accept. Other characters meanwhile, such as Gavin’s wife Margaret (Amelia Bullmore) and teenage son Kenneth (Lewis Davie), are underdeveloped to the point of being somewhat irrelevant other than as a mechanism for Gavin to demonstrate his repugnant personality, while Celia Imrie’s officious welfare officer is nothing more than a distraction from the main action. A romantic sub-plot involving Kenneth and a violinist from the wedding band provides some laughs, but writer/directors Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin – who have worked together on the television series Outnumbered – don’t capitalise on this potential. For the most part though, the pair have been successful in balancing some genuinely funny moments with the more serious contemplations on life, death, love and family. A film in which the children are the adults and the adults act like children, What We Did on Our Holiday is a fresh, honest and ultimately uplifting British comedy that manages to subvert expectations whist still upholding many of the traditions of the genre.