Fisherman’s Friends is based on the unlikely but real-life story of a group of Cornish guard/lifeboat workers who, moonlighting as a sea shanty-singing a cappella group, got signed by Universal and made a debut album that reached the top ten. In tackling the promising, potentially heart-warming idea, Chris Foggin's film looks to jimmy together two pervasive types of Brit flick: 1) The scrappy band of little guys who embody the values of their region and triumph against all odds — see The Full Monty, Brassed Off. 2) The city slicker who has his cynical streak redeemed by the simplicity of life in a small rural village à la Local Hero. Sadly, the film doesn’t come close to its antecedents, mechanically cycling through the requisite story beats, lacking wit or heart.
Part of the problem is the tone. Perhaps because it is such a fanciful story, it needs at least half a foot in reality. But everything, from the cartoonish world of Noel Clarke’s record exec to a boozer full of trendy Londoners joining the Friends in a full-blown rendition of ‘Blow The Man Down’, makes it hard to believe and invest in on an emotional level. Instead, there’s slow-motion Reservoir Dogs walking (surely by now there should be a moratorium on this?), vulgar songs at posh dos, tensions in a local pub quiz (that come to nothing), telegraphed deaths, and a sub-plot about record company man Danny’s (Mays) involvement in selling the local pub that is primed for third-act conflict. Even the more colourful true-life incidents — invited to sing the National Anthem on This Morning, they sing the Cornish anthem — don’t land like they should. It’s the kind of film where when the group become popular, David Essex’s ‘Gonna Make You A Star’ blares on the soundtrack. It’s that level of subtle.
The fishermen are a likeable if interchangeable bunch, lacking the sharply defined characters of, say, The Full Monty gang — only James Purefoy (The Taciturn One) and David Hayman (The Jokey One) as father and son really register. Given the group’s unlikely rise to stardom, the film could have benefitted from some of the fairy-tale qualities of Cornwall. But Foggins and DP Simon Tindall make one of the country’s beauty spots look decidedly ordinary, crafting no beauty or magic from the gift of a setting. Despite dialogue that attempts an explanation, it’s hard to feel why Danny falls in love with the place other than the plot needing him to.
There are some strong points. Mays and Middleton generate good chemistry — a scene where they swap music trivia and play vinyl contains some of the warmth and detail the rest of the film needed — and it has its heart in the right place. But the overall feeling is of a missed opportunity. The cheery true-life story deserved better.