Saturday, 1 June 2013

Film Review | The Sapphires (2012)

Chris O'Dowd seems to be something of a flavour of the moment across the pond in Hollywood. Having made his name here in the UK as grouchy computer geek Roy in Channel 4 sitcom The IT Crowd, O'Dowd suddenly managed the transition to feature films, becoming the go-to guy for a fresh, alternative Irish or British (interchangeable in Hollywood) addition to a cast. So far, he's held his own but failed to impress me with turns in the likes of Bridesmaids and Friends With Kids, partly because the parts he was cast in could easily have been played just as well or better by any number of other young actors - Irish, British, American or otherwise. His central turn in Australian-made movie The Sapphires however is exactly the kind of role O'Dowd needs to find for himself, and is also his first feature performance to truly catch my attention.

The Sapphires brings together an eclectic mix of genres and themes including musical, comedy, romance and war, as well as being based on a true story. It's a mix which could promise something for everyone, but also one which requires director Wayne Blair to maintain a careful balance to make sure the whole thing doesn't end up a complete mess. Pleasingly, things end up mostly okay. The soul tunes throughout deliver pleasing entertainment, and whilst not ever joke hits its mark there's plenty here to make you chuckle, thanks mostly to the relaxed and confident performance from O'Dowd as Dave Lovelace, the aboriginal girl group's Irish manager.

The romance takes its time to get going, but by the film's final act it's been given enough time to develop into one of the film's strongest assets. As far as the film's handling of its primary setting - the Vietnam war - it admittedly does feel a little too light at several points, shying away from revealing any of the true horrors. That in itself isn't a serious issue - the film is primarily a musical comedy, and plenty of other films have used war as a backdrop without dealing with death and violence head-on - but it does give the film something of an artificially upbeat feeling at times. The treatment of aborigines in Australia in the 1950s and 1960s is also dealt with at a few points with a greater level of success.

There are some issues here which can't be ignored, however. The performances from the four members of the titular aboriginal girl group range from pleasingly strong (Deborah Mailman) to decidedly clunky (Jessica Mauboy, clearly here only for her singing ability). Structurally the film feels somewhat uneven too, with a first act that rushes through several ideas with very little development leaving things feeling flimsy and amateurish at first. There are also a few threads left hanging without any resolution, and one particular scene involving Dave and the girls under threat from a group of Viet Cong soldiers offers a resolution so unbelievable without any explanation as to be laughable.

Despite its flaws, The Sapphires remains an enjoyable film that deserves credit for setting itself some challenging goals. Whilst it doesn't succeed in everything it attempts, Blair's film is an admirable and entertaining piece of cinema with both brains and spirit.


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