‘Whisky Galore!’ does not have enough comic spirit

“Whisky Galore!” – World War II impacted hundreds of millions of people.  Sure, most did not fight on the front lines, but the war affected those at home.  Men, women and children were sick with worry about their loved ones milling in foreign lands, and federal governments demanded that food, clothing, metals, gasoline, and more be rationed.  On the island of Todday, 100 miles from Great Britain’s mainland, its residents are not immune to the aforementioned sacrifices, and in director Gillies MacKinnon’s new picture, he focuses on one specific commodity, whiskey.

As the film opens, a local bartender bemoans, “My quarter is finished. There’s no more whiskey. The island is dry.”

Several elderly men sitting at the bar slowly recoil in horror at this dire prospect, but then again, a war is on.  Todday’s residents – like a postmaster named Macroon (Gregor Fisher), his two daughters, Catriona (Ellie Kendrick) and Peggy (Naomi Battrick), and a whole host of locals – do not have whiskey to drown their anxieties about the war.  Now, they do live on a distant, small island, so Hitler surely does not have Todday on his list of top territories to conquer.  That does not stop Captain Wagget (Eddie Izzard) from appointing some men to practice setting up roadblocks against a future Nazi invasion.

One day, however, a roadblock on the sea dramatically changes this island’s fortunes.  A cargo ship crashes on some rocks offshore, and it contains furniture from the Bahamas and 50,000 cases of whiskey from New York.

50,000 cases!

The ship is filling with water, and it will sink, so the cases will fall to the bottom of the sea, unless, of course, someone climbs aboard and snatches them from a watery grave. “Whisky Galore!” is not a gravely serious film, but a comedy, one about managing huge fortunes, and the intended fun centers around the locals obtaining, sharing, consuming, and yes, hiding tons (literally, tons) of alcohol.  The film thankfully does not delve into infighting about dividing up shares of the liquid gold, but rather celebrates the islanders’ general camaraderie.  Eccentric folks on an eccentric island provide noteworthy visuals, when they transport boxes of whiskey – by shoulder and by car – over green hillsides of this Scottish island.

With Captain Wagget looking to secure the pilfered bottles, the townsfolk’s main job is to hide their collective bounty from him.  They get creative at times during a fun game of cat and mouse.  For 30 minutes, these scenes provide the most entertaining in the picture.  Unfortunately, the movie is not just a half hour long, but 1 hour and 38 minutes, and despite the intriguing premise – based on a 1947 novel and 1949 film – everything feels slow and ordinary.

Now, Wagget’s Sgt. Schultz’s routine is amusing, but other than an elderly, overbearing mom, no other characters really stand out.  Macroon, his girls, the beaus who they wish to marry, a minister (James Cosmo), other locals, and a few coast guard officers are not really given much to do.  Like a group of castaways waiting to be rescued, these folks just seem to go through the motions prior to the whiskey discovery, but then collectively behave like rabid, hallucinatory vagrants, looking for their first meal in months.  It all feels a little cartoonish, and once the dichotomy doesn’t feel sincere, it took this critic out of the story.

Worse yet, outside of one cleverly written and delivered line by Wagget’s wife (Fenella Woolgar), it is difficult to recall one patch of dialogue from the film.  For a designed comedy, that’s a bad sign.

“Waking Ned Devine” (1998) is the easiest comparison film to “Whisky Galore!”, because both films are set in tiny communities within the same portion of the globe.  The 1998 Irish comedy though feels vastly superior, because the Tulaigh Mhor residents jump through more intricate hoops to deceive a (different type of) authority figure, and all of the main characters truly stand out.  “Waking Ned Devine” is easily quotable as well, and that is a good sign for a comedy.  As someone of Irish and Scottish descent, I wish that I could say that I enjoyed both comedies equally, but that is clearly not the case (pardon the pun).

⭐ 1/2  out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐

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