‘What We Did on Our Holiday’: Film Review

British family comedy starts strong but fizzles in the final stretch

David Tennant ("Doctor Who") and Rosamund Pike ("Gone Girl") co-star as bickering parents trying to keep a lid on it for Billy Connolly’s birthday in this British, family-centric comedy

What We Did On Our Holiday could be used as a textbook example of how to ruin a movie with a bad third act. The first two thirds have a certain salty, if somewhat contrived charm as directing-screenwriting duo Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin set the stage with a couple (Doctor Who’s David Tennant and Gone Girl’s Rosamund Pike) on the verge of divorce bringing their brood of three kids to Scotland for a family gathering. A midpoint tragic twist complicates things in an unexpected but interesting way, but after that it’s all downhill with horribly forced farce and the fakest kind of closure.

In terms of commercial prospects, things could go either way with this one, depending on the marketing strategy. Although it has children in it, it’s not really a kids’ film, which always makes things tricky, and once word gets out about the twist some parents may think twice anyway about exposing offspring to a potentially upsetting subject. Local distributor Lionsgate will need to play up the cast and the movie’s connection to the popular BBC-produced sitcom Outnumbered, which Hamilton and Jenkin created.

Scotsman Doug McLeon (Tennant) and his English wife Abi (Pike) have separated after an infidelity and can’t be in each other’s presence for five minutes without sniping or shouting at each other. Nevertheless, for reasons that never seem entirely credible, they’ve decided not let on to Doug’s family about their separation when the get up to Western Scotland to celebrate the 75th birthday of his father Gordie (Billy Connolly, on fine form).

As they prepare for the long drive, serious eldest child Lottie (Emilia Jones) reveals she’s keeping a notebook to keep track of all the lies she has to tell. The other two sprogs seem less affected by the marital situation, although middle kid Mickey (Bobby Smalldridge) won’t stop talking about Vikings, and youngest Jess (Harriet Turnbull) has formed an unnatural attachment to a concrete breeze-block she’s named Eric.

Once they arrive up the road, there’s a lot sitcom-y comedy of awkwardness around the clash of personalities gathered. Supporting characters include Doug’s bossy, nouveau-riche brother Gavin (Ben Miller, who has great timing but plays things a too broadly sometimes), Gavin’s mousey wife Margaret (Amelia Bullmore), and down-to-earth paterfamilias Gordie, who reveals he has terminal cancer and really doesn’t give a toss about the big shindig Gavin is organizing anyway.

It all rubs along adequately enough for a while as the script mostly resorts to generating laughs out of the kids saying age-inappropriate things (the main humor engine in Outnumbered as well) and the adults scattering sarcastic bon mots like so much grass seed. When the big, sad thing that can’t be named happens, the plunge is handled with some sensitivity. Sadly, the filmmakers can’t seem to decompress the tonal nitrogen content as the film makes its boringly predictable rise up to a sea level of lightness and all-is-forgiven redemption.

The poor cast seems particularly adrift by this point, and too often they seem to be performing in different movies. There’s a particularly jarring disconnect between the acting styles of the kids. Clearly, Smalldridge and Turnbull were encouraged to improvise, and they turn in adept, naturalistic turns, but the older Jones sounds too often like she’s haltingly reeling off memorized lines.

Production companies: BBC Films presents in association with Creative Scotland, Lipsync Productions an Origins Pictures

Cast: David Tennant, Rosamund Pike, Billy Connolly, Ben Miller, Amelia Bullmore, Celia Imrie, Emilia Jones, Bobby Smalldridge, HarrietTurnbull

Directors/Screenwriters: Andy Hamilton, Guy Jenkin

Producers: David Thomspon, Dan Winch

Executive producers: Christine Langan, Zygi Kamasa, Andrew Orr, Norman Merry, Peter Hampden, James Eyre

Director of photography: Martin Hawkins

Production designer: Pat Campbell

Costume designer: Rhona Russell

Editors: Steve Tempia, Mark Williams

Music: Alex Heffes

Music supervisor: Chantelle Woodnutt

Casting: Jill Trevellick, Briony Barnet


No U.S. rating, 95 minutes