Set in a Welsh comprehensive during the long hot summer of 1976, Marc Evans’ Hunky Dory tells of a bohemian drama teacher (Minnie Driver) who returns home after the death of her father and the collapse of her long-strived for career. Hoping to inject a bit of sunshine into the lives of her pupils Viv starts to pull together a version of The Tempest filled with musical numbers culled from the albums of David Bowie, Beach Boys and The Byrds. Faced with institutional hostility on the one hand and student indifference on the other, Viv strives to convince everyone of the importance of expressing oneself even when one’s life is falling apart.
Marc Evans is very much a journeyman director whose work in film (1998’s Resurrection Man and 2002’s My Little Eye) and television (2009’s Collision) has elicited some praise but not enough to make him a director with much of a following. Despite Evans’ somewhat patchy track record, Hunky Dory finds him on fine form as every shot screams ‘Long Hot Summer’ through sweat-glazed sepia tones while the film’s pacing never once slows or drags. Indeed, despite the fact that I did not think very much of this film, there is no denying that Evans perfectly understands the ‘string of pearls’ nature of genre plotting and so we are never more than a few minutes from a song or a big dramatic scene. On a purely structural and cinematic level, Hunky Dory is a very effective piece of filmmaking. Which is strange given that pretty much every other aspect of this film fails to deliver.
The biggest problem affecting Hunky Dory is Laurence Coriat’s script. As one might expect from a coming-of-age teen musical, Hunky Dory is littered with Big Dramatic Scenes where characters learn about themselves and about life. Unfortunately, despite these scenes popping up quite frequently, Hunky Dory lacks the requisite amount of characterisation to lend these scenes the dramatic substance to which they so obviously aspire. For example, there is one scene in which the school hall burns down and Driver’s Viv rounds on her fellow teachers in order to challenge their hostility to the play. But because neither the sports teacher nor the social studies teacher are properly fleshed out, Viv’s grand exit from the room feels like a laughably childish flounce. Like most of Hunky Dory’s Big Dramatic Scenes, this was the pay-off to a dramatic arc that simply does not exist. Another example of this is the scene in which Viv finds an engraving of her dead father’s motto ‘Don’t Let The Bastards Grind You Down’. This discovery is clearly supposed to rekindle Viv’s faith in the stalled project but because neither Coriat’s script nor Evans’ direction bother to flesh out Viv’s relationship with her father, the scene feels like nothing more than a dishonest and undeserved emotional contrivance. By repeatedly trying to milk the pay-off to dramatic arcs that simply do not exist, Hunky Dory comes close to achieving the levels of hysteria found in Michael Bay’s Transformers 3 as Everyone! Is! Very! Upset! All! The! Fucking! Time! For! No! Apparent! Reason!
The weakness of Hunky Dory’s characterisation also carries across into much of its plotting as the film is littered with tensions and conflicts which, though useful in terms of moving the narrative forward, lack anything approaching psychological verisimilitude or emotional resonance. For example, when the school hall burns down the police decide to question Darren Evans’ ‘troubled’ skinhead Kenny. Discussing the fact that Kenny could not have done it, a couple of kids are confronted by Kenny’s skinhead brother who asks whether they shopped him to the police. Rather than simply saying No and going on their way, the pair decides to run off and a pointless chase ensues. Well… I say pointless but this race across town does serve to set up one of the kids discovering that his best friend is dating his sister. Because this is deemed unacceptable (for reasons that are largely glossed over), people get upset and this causes a Big Dramatic Scene with running and shouting. A scene that, again, feels utterly contrived and dramatically undeserved.
Aside from its weak characterisation and clunky plotting, Hunky Dory is also weighted down by some of the ugliest line-by-line writing that I have ever encountered. Coriat’s script is a wasteland of flaccid zingers and awkward exchanges littered with dull expletives in a desperate attempt to make it all seem a bit more real and a bit more urgent. Also deeply problematic is the film’s use of words such as “poof” and “paki”. While there is no denying that people in the mid-70s did use those terms, Hunky Dory not only strips them of their context but also fails to hold the people who use them to account. For example, one of the main characters becomes a skinhead but unlike Shane Meadows’ This is England (2006), Hunky Dory never explains what this means or why it might be a bad thing. Instead, the film presents racism and homophobia as mere local colour no different to a love of rugby or the quaintness of growing up without a telephone. Similarly, while I realise that Julia Perez’s Sylvie is supposed to be a comic character, her character’s comic impact lies in its stereotypical nature: French people have sex all the time and smoke! Ha Ha Ha! Period setting is no excuse for that kind of lazy and xenophobic writing. It simply has no place in a modern British film.
Of course, Hunky Dory is ultimately a genre piece and while it fails as both a comedy and a musical, the film might have been redeemed had its musical elements been successful. Unfortunately, they are not. Much of Hunky Dory’s marketing bumf stresses the fact that the film features classic works of 60s and 70s pop. While this may conjure up images of High School Musical (2006) meets Mama Mia (2008), the truth is that Hunky Dory’s songs are mostly quite obscure. Indeed, despite being in my mid-30s, I only recognised one of the tunes and even then it was because the tune was covered by Nirvana. Equally unimpressive are the performances of the mostly youthful cast who both lack charisma and display a terrifying tendency to wander off the note. Though some of the musical numbers are okay, none are particularly memorable and a few are faintly embarrassing. A lot of the singing in Hunky Dory is so flat that it could be Holland.
Clearly, I am not the target audience for Hunky Dory but I do see what it is that the film is trying to achieve. Inspired by the massive success of High School Musical and the TV series Glee, Hunky Dory is an attempt to do something a bit similar but set in Wales and with a slightly cooler soundtrack. Hunky Dory should have been about the power of music and performance to guide and transform teenaged lives, to find those that are lost and fix those that are broken. Hunky Dory should have been, as Driver’s character says, about the heroism of self-expression in a time and place where everybody wants you to shut up and knuckle down. Sadly, because of its weak performances, unimpressive musical numbers and astonishingly weak script, Hunky Dory is none of these things. All it is is a mess.