I went to see Mamma Mia! in Stockholm expecting clichés and thin characters—and found them. What I wasn't expecting was a dazzling piece of cinemaby Mark Cousins / September 28, 2008 / Leave a comment
I saw the Abba musical Mamma Mia! recently. I was in Stockholm, the capital city of Abba-ness, and the film—which I was desperate to see—was playing in the Skandia; one of the world’s loveliest cinemas, designed by the great architect Gunnar Asplund.
As I sat down in Asplund’s barrel-like auditorium, I thought to myself: this film cannot work. A movie needs to create a coherent world. How can this one do so? Anglophone, melodious, Swedish pop tunes from the 1970s and 1980s were shoehorned into a west end mega-musical set in Greece—all done with an eye trained on the tourist dollar—and now filmed by the English theatre and opera director Phyllida Lloyd, who also directed the stage version but has never made a movie before. The cast is led by Meryl Streep, the high priestess of dramatic realism in American cinema, singing and dancing in the manner of Debbie Reynolds. She is joined by a former James Bond, Pierce Brosnan, the brooding Swede Stellan Skarsgård, that bag of ferrets Julie Walters, and Colin Firth. Sweden-Greece-England-America; different acting styles and traditions; realism and artifice competing. I was surely about to see, at best, a curate’s egg.
The curtains open, the first song, “I Have a Dream,” begins. A girl is singing, a sun is setting. Pierce is dashing to JFK in a yellow cab, intercut with Firth, who’s in a hurry too. The girl’s two best friends arrive on a Thomas Cook Greek island. They find everything side-splittingly funny. We, the audience, are not privy to the joke. Fake energy, dramatic clichés, one-note character types. I was right, I think. But about ten minutes later, I change my mind. The dramaturgy is still creaky, the psychology is molecule-thin, but the movie has blasted me into believing. And its mistral force comes not from the things critics usually write about—nuances of script, social insight, dramatic complexity—but from what lies between.
First, a sense of movement. Things are constantly dashing and dancing: seeing Mamma Mia! is like staring at a knitting machine, whizzing away faster than your eye can follow. Second, the movie is a riot of joyful, or embarrassed, body language. Watching Streep boogie, loll, cavort and high kick told me more about the life of this woman than all the dialogue. Streep’s directors have always focused on the melancholy beauty of…