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
Published in September 2008 issue of Prospect Magazine
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 her face, but here the beauty is in her arms and legs too. Julie Walters is all elbows and clucking. I don’t know why the way she enters and exits a frame is so funny, but it is. Even Brosnan and Firth use their thick-set, grown men’s bodies endearingly, like uncles at a wedding, dragged on to the dancefloor. When Charlie Chaplin made two bread rolls dance in The Gold Rush (1925), it became clear that, before it is about story or character, cinema is about movement. In Mamma Mia!, Lloyd wrongfoots her naysayers because she understands this. There are other ways that Mamma Mia! unifies its disparate aesthetic elements. Its attitudes and objects are so female and gay—there’s a big overlap between the two here—that Brosnan in particular looks like an extraterrestrial just landed on planet woman. The other big Hollywood film of the moment, The Dark Knight, is the perfect mirror image of Mamma Mia!: dark, dystopic and very male. Sign me up for the double bill. More surprising, perhaps, is how much the Abba songs in Mamma Mia!, which have few intentionally funny lines, are played for laughs. “Chiquitita,” for example, is staged as a Three Stooges farce, with Streep in a toilet cubicle and Julie Walters and Christine Baranski mugging on each other’s backs, imploring her above the toilet door to come out and confide. The movie does to Abba’s melodrama what Morecambe and Wise once did to Shirley Bassey in a Christmas special: when one of her diamante stilettos fell off, they replaced it with a labourer’s steel toe-capped boot. Mamma Mia! cuts whatever is left of its songs’ emotions with a lemon squeeze of surrealism or goofiness. Even more unifying is the colour coding and burnished look of the film. Not since South Pacific has a movie musical so saturated its chromatics to shout “escapism!” Such visual flooding is paralleled in the performances. Mamma Mia! doesn’t do minimalism. Some reviews have suggested that the gestures of Streep and the rest of the cast are so big because Lloyd, as a theatre director, forgets that she doesn’t have to reach the back of the stalls. I don’t think so. I suspect she and her actresses filmed more contained takes but that, in the final one, Lloyd told them to give it full welly, and they did—and that’s the version she and her editor chose to use. But if I had to choose one thing that holds this impossible picture together, it would be Streep. The happiness that I felt watching her goes beyond cinema. Not since Ginger Rogers or Katharine Hepburn has there been an American actress who combines honesty and exuberance in a way that makes a movie like this believable. The geopolitics of Mamma Mia! are unforgivable. Its Greeks are picturesque oldies who suddenly burst into the chorus of “Dancing Queen.” Not since the 1950s has Hollywood got away with such stupid stereotyping. The young people all look like they are in a Boden catalogue. Its ending copies The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, the climax is stolen from The Philadelphia Story and, though I haven’t seen this mentioned in any reviews, it is very Bollywood. But it will be remembered much as Grease (a film that it draws upon, and is superior to) is remembered. The utopian aesthetics of Mamma Mia! make it a landmark in popular cinema.