Fisherman’s Friends, 2019.
Directed by Chris Foggin.
Starring Daniel Mays, James Purefoy, Tuppence Middleton, David Hayman, Noel Clarke, Dave Johns, Sam Swainsbury and Christopher Villiers.
A hotshot London music producer decides that a group of Cornish fishermen, who sing sea shanties in their village, could have a successful career in showbiz.
There’s a real place in my heart for old-fashioned British underdog stories on the big screen. Whether it’s the gentle charm of Gregory’s Girl or the all-out joy of the more recent Pride, British cinema is as well known for its charming tales of triumph over adversity as it is for the darkness of its kitchen sink realism. The latest entry to that underdog canon is Fisherman’s Friends, which tells the true story of a group of Cornish fishermen who managed to secure a record deal for their cover versions of traditional sea shanties.
The guys are discovered by accident when music producer Danny (Daniel Mays) arrives in the Cornish fishing village of Port Isaac on a stag do. A prank gone awry leaves Danny stranded alone in the village, urged by his boss Troy (Noel Clarke) to try to sign the local fishermen, who regularly perform in the harbour. Troy was joking, but Danny goes ahead and tries to make the deal. He stays in a guest house owned by Jim (James Purefoy) and his daughter Alwyn (Tuppence Middleton), bonding with the latter over their shared status as divorcées.
It’s a classic structure and one that yields very few surprises over the course of the film’s slightly over-inflated running time. However, there’s a wit to the script that makes up for a lot of its clichéd trappings. Much of the humour trades in quite simple ‘Privileged City Boy vs. Street Smart Villagers’ barbs, from the description of a BMW as a “cock extension” to the dismissal of Danny’s lager order (“we don’t have much call for fizzy drinks”), but the performers lean in to the gags so much that they largely land pretty well.
Mays is a great foil to this comedy, soaking up insults with a delightfully underplayed performance. He’s dismissed early on as an “emmet” – Cornish for ant, implying he’s an invader – and constantly subject to light-hearted ribbing by those whose world he’s living in. His comic disbelief is a real highlight, including during an exceptionally tense pub quiz night that plays host to a showdown between rival Cornish factions.
Particular praise must go to David Hayman for his work as Jago – father of Purefoy’s character. He does a great job as a grizzled and jaded old fisherman, whose excitement at the prospect of a musical career in his old age is infectious. His excitement serves as a counterpoint to the cynicism of Purefoy’s grumpy, sceptical fella – whose mistrust of Danny is only made worse when it becomes clear that he has romantic designs on his daughter. Purefoy finds real shades in the ‘protective father’ archetype, and is capable of tapping into his fun side as much as his intimidating grouch persona. One late scene in which he encourages an entire London bar to sing along to ‘Drunken Sailor’ is a genuinely rousing moment.
Director Chris Foggin deserves credit for marshalling a huge ensemble cast and giving all of the characters enough of a personality for us to care about their lives. There are a lot of moving parts in this rather raggedy movie, but he holds them all together around the simplicity of the central premise, turning on the emotional afterburners with a couple of gut-punch moments that hit very hard indeed. This is a film that loves wallowing in weirdness – the guys defiantly singing the Cornish anthem instead of ‘God Save the Queen’ on TV – but knows when to get serious and land its emotional blows.
Fisherman’s Friends isn’t a particularly elegant movie, with some clumsy moments. The local vs. metropolitan contrast is hammered perhaps a little too hard, with one clumsy scene drawing a link between seaside seagulls and city-dwelling pigeons sticking out as particularly on the nose. However, it’s a heart-warming and rousing underdog tale that’s as British as a cone of chips wrapped in newspaper. Just try disliking that, I dare you.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.