Presumably the guard was there to check that none of us took any snaps of Meryl Streep. There she was cavorting across the screen in dungarees with hair like straw, skipping through olive groves and singing ‘Dancing Queen’ with a Greek chorus in tow. One call to the taste police and the authorities would arrest her and withdraw all reels of this sickly sweet yet wildly – bafflingly – fun film. Once the credits – which feature the cast, dressed in pantomime ’70s gear, bashing out ‘Waterloo’ – had rolled, I asked the guard what he thought. ‘I’ve seen it four times,’ he said, with perfect timing. And you like it? Pause. ‘It has its moments.’
The story has all the symmetry and drive of a stage show. Twenty-year-old American Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) is about to marry her fiancé, Sky (Dominic Cooper), in the grounds of a dilapidated hotel on a Greek island run by her tireless boho mother, Donna (Streep). Only she doesn’t know which of three of her mum’s former lovers is her dad. The solution? Invite them all.And so, unknown to Donna, businessman Sam (Brosnan), old hippy Bill (Stellan Skarsgård) and City gent Harry (Colin Firth) rock up to the sunniest of Greek islands.
They sing, they dance, they wonder who’s the father. It’s ‘Paternity: The Musical’. The story is pat, some voices are ropey, but Phyllida Lloyd succeeds in bringing this musical to the screen by indulging in not a whiff of ’70s nostalgia (until the credits), taking all the right things seriously – design, locations, casting, choreography – and rejecting elements that would have made it less forgivable: gloss, cynicism and irony.
Despite a flow of beach bods, there’s no worship of superficial beauty beyond the casting of the young leads, Seyfried and Cooper (and neither is a vapid youngster of ‘The OC’ sort). Lloyd plays it straight as a bat and finds a working balance between the fantasy of the musical numbers, the fairytale story and the down-to-earth presentation of the characters. The one concession she makes to Hollywood is that more of the leads are American than in the stage version – but she more than compensates by casting Julie Walters in a major role.
Just watch her sing and dance to ‘Take a Chance on Me’. There’s nothing slick about that. The men are a rum, awkward bunch. Skarsgård (age 57) looks like he’s having far too good a time being rubbed by young women during one number; Colin Firth doesn’t push the boat out and plays a bumbling Englishman; and, however hard he tries, Brosnan doesn’t remind you of Brando in ‘Streetcar…’ even when yelling ‘Donna!’ at Streep.
‘Mamma Mia!’ is not a man’s film. I mean this in the way that films about football hooligans who get loaded and smash the skulls of other hooligans are not women’s films. But I suspect that a fair few men (and not a few women) will find that this film appeals to an urge for wholesome trash and confounds their expectations. Against the odds, ‘Mamma Mia!’ is a summer movie that’s as camp as Christmas and as enjoyable as a pantomime. I suspect Streep will win an Oscar nomination; at 59, and still doing the splits, she’s game enough to deserve one.