A group of humble singing Cornish fishermen are accidentally ‘discovered’ by a slick London record-industry executive and achieve a modest amount of fame and fortune when he signs them up to a record deal and their album of sea shanties becomes a surprise hit.
Apologies for the spoiler but this is the kind of film, like Brassed Off or The Full Monty or Calendar Girls – where you don’t go expecting plot twists and a surprise ending. It’s one of those movies where what you want and what you get is a full-on feelgood heartwarmer with a guaranteed happy ending.
When I saw the synopsis while scrawling through the movie offerings on a recent long-haul international flight I thought: haven’t we had enough of those English battlers-overcoming-the-odds-through-collective-action, staring-down-the-naysayers and confounding-the-skeptics stories? I probably wouldn’t have paid to see it at the cinema for that reason, but I opted to watch it on the plane for several reasons: a) the only other movies I hadn’t seen already were rubbishy actioners, b) I like traditional music and c) it was a true story.
The truth of the story redeemed what would otherwise have been a bit of a lame effort. I say lame because, while Brassed Off and The Full Monty may not have been literally true, their social and political context – the devastating consequences of unemployment following the closure of steel and coal industries in England’s north – was unfortunately true and gave those films their dramatic power. By contrast, these fishermen appear to be still gainfully employed, singing merrily as they haul away at their catches from a still bountiful Atlantic fishery. I hope this much is true.
I haven’t tried too hard to determine if the rest of the backstory is true. Did it all start out with a stag weekend prank? Did the formerly fast-living, cynical exec really find true love with a local lassie and save the local pub into the bargain?
Interestingly, the saving-the-pub theme also features in one of the storylines of Doc Martin, set in the same picturesque Cornish town of Port Isaac. The fishermen arguably have the better claim to the location as they do actually live there. Doc Martin is of course a fictional character, but that series got there first, in 2004, six years before the events recounted in Fishermen’s Friends. There is no mention of Doc Martin in the telling of the singing fishermen’s story, nor is there any depiction of or reference to the tourism influx inspired by that enduring and wonderful series. Look up any travel website and you will find Doc Martin-themed tours of Port Isaac, but you will also find heated discussion and plenty of ambivalence on the part of both locals and visitors as to whether this is a Good Thing. Although friends of mine who recently visited Port Isaac and other picture-postcard Cornish coastal villages say they are all inundated by tourists in summer, mainly Poms, and that the Doc Martin factor didn’t appear to have made that much difference to Port Isaac.
The lead character is played by Daniel Mays. He’s one of those versatile English actors whose face you recognize instantly but which has you distractedly wondering where you’ve seen it before. In my case it was in the TV series Line of Duty and the movie Swimming With Men. I’m not sure he was the right man to play the cynical London spiv; from the start he looks like the kind of lovable goof who’d fall for that quaint village charm and go native in a flash.
As an old folkie I have to say I was a bit disappointed by the music. It reminded me of the way folk songs were sung in the 1970s, before traditional music got revitalized with infusions of rock, soul and world aesthetics.
A much more imaginative, muscular treatment of sea shanties can be found in the collection Rogue’s Gallery, put together by Johnny Depp and film director Gore Verbinski when they were shooting Pirates of the Caribbean. They recruited singers like Sting, Loudon Wainwright III, Richard Thompson, Nick Cave, Martin Carthy, Lou Reed, Bryan Ferry and others to produce a collection of 41 shanties that give these old songs back their original vitality and emotional power.
Anyway, I’ll give Fishermen’s Friends three stars out of five, because as with crime and spy stuff, The Brits Do This Kind of Thing So Well.