Review: Fisherman’s Friends Stubbornly Sounds a Note of Congeniality

The script doesn’t contain many lines that ring true, and a few clang wildly off-key.

Fisherman's Friends
Photo: Samuel Goldwyn Films

Several times during Fisherman’s Friends, the filmmakers sound a note of danger by having characters recall maritime calamities off the Cornwall coast. Yet this ensemble comedy about a group of gruff sea-shanty singers could hardly be safer, as its appeal comes mainly from its congeniality and not from any attempt to disturb or surprise.

Inspired by a real-life a cappella group, but almost entirely fictionalized, Chris Foggin’s film turns on a fleeting moment of culture clash between the tradition-minded denizens of a small fishing village and a shallow Londoner. Danny (Daniel Mays) arrives in Port Isaac—home of the actual Fisherman’s Friends—with three pals for a stag weekend and are immediately rebuked as “tossers” and “wankers” by the town’s most eligible single mum, Alwyn (Tuppence Middleton). The unwelcomed visitors all work in pop-music management, so their ears prick up when they hear the fishermen harmonize on the seaside. Even after learning that his boss, Troy (Noel Clarke), was pranking him into signing the mostly over-50 vocalists as a “buoy hand,” Danny continues to take the assignment seriously. It doesn’t hurt that pursuing the skeptical singer-sailors also gives him an opportunity to court Alwyn and win over her young daughter (Meadow Nobrega), whose adorability is as inevitable as Port Isaac’s beauty.

Screenwriters Nick Moorcroft, Meg Leonard, and Piers Ashworth muster only a few small conflicts throughout. Danny’s pitch for his new clients is initially spurned by a hipster London record label, and his attempt to save Port Isaac’s beloved but bankrupt pub is interpreted as a betrayal by the villagers, including Alwyn. (This development is something Danny doesn’t see coming, but audiences surely will.) More amusingly, the fishermen take a stand for their Cornish identity that bewilders Danny and his big-city peers. “You’re not in England anymore,” Danny is chided, a scolding he initially doesn’t understand.

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Yet Fisherman’s Friends never ventures out of the familiar territory of such British big-screen sitcoms as John Madden’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Christopher Monger’s The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill but Came Down a Mountain. Whatever flag flaps overhead, the populace of these films consists mostly of lovable eccentrics whose crustiness will soon soften. Even Alwyn’s forbidding father, Jim (James Purefoy), who resembles Hugh Jackman in Wolverine mode, is guaranteed to warm before the end credits. (For a tarter account of Cornish antipathy to London tourists, see Mark Jenkin’s Bait, also released in the U.K. last year.)

The soundtrack features some lively musical performances by the Fisherman’s Friends, but the filmmakers don’t quite trust that old-timey music, which is surprising given that the group scored a 2010 gold album in Britain. So the shanties are supplemented by Rupert Christie’s tinkly score and British pop-punk and American disco tunes, including the Water Boys’s “Fisherman’s Blues” and Hues Corporation’s “Rock the Boat.” If those song cues are a little obvious, at least the musical interludes are largely free of dialogue, which is the film’s weakest element. The script doesn’t contain many lines that ring true, and a few clang wildly off-key. Yet most of these misfires are rescued by the cast, whose naturalness passes for small-town camaraderie. In a film genre that relies heavily on coziness, the actors seem entirely at home.

Score: 
 Cast: Daniel Mays, James Purefoy, David Hayman, Dave Johns, Sam Swainsbury, Tuppence Middleton, Noel Clarke, Christian Brassington, Maggie Steed, Vahid Gold, Jo Hart, Julian Seager, Christopher Villiers, Meadow Nobrega  Director: Chris Foggin  Screenwriter: Nick Moorcroft, Meg Leonard, Piers Ashworth  Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Films  Running Time: 112 min  Rating: PG-13  Year: 2019  Buy: Video

Mark Jenkins

Mark Jenkins writes about art, film, music, and more. His writing frequently appears in The Washington Post.

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