Directed by Wayne Blair. Starring Chris O’Dowd, Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Shari Sebbens, Miranda Tapsell, Tory Kittles, Eka Darville, Lynette Narkle PG cert, general release, 103 min
O’Dowd has the X factor, though there’s not much soul in The Sapphires, writes DONALD CLARKE
DO YOU feel good yet? Do you?
If not, then the makers of this diverting Australian musical will be enormously disappointed. Few films have worn their supposed “feel-good” credentials so conspicuously. The picture features a group of plucky underdogs. It invites you to sing along and dance in the aisles. It ends with irresistible monochrome images of the group that inspired the story.
Heck, it’s even got Chris O’Dowd – a face that invites smiles – grinning warmly from the poster. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, as it happens, not all that much. The Sapphires is certainly at home to corn, and the limited budget shows through at its tattered edges. But it should do wonders for those still suffering from Mamma Mia! withdrawals.
We begin in a balmy incarnation of 1960s Australia that, for all the lingering parochialism and ugly racism, still seems as reassuringly brown as the older version touted in much-mourned soap The Sullivans.
Three indigenous Australians are auditioning for their local talent show. Their take on a creaky country tune is clearly the standout performance. But – just as the X Factor judges favour tuneless camp novelty acts over melodious middle-aged warblers – the archetypically fusty organisers feel obliged to hand the prize to a less glitzy white act. Happily, the amiable Dave, a mildly alcoholic Irish wanderer, is persuaded to manage the group and he sets out to secure them a gig entertaining the troops in Vietnam.
How quickly we have come to rely on O’Dowd. In the past few years he has evolved into the sort of actor whose very presence can turn sludge into soup. It’s not just his ability to punch a line with such eccentric stresses that comedy emerges where none was intended. His vulnerability makes even the greatest heel seem likable.
Dave is not, of course, a terrible fellow. This isn’t the sort of film that invites monsters into the foreground. He is, rather, a classic redeemable rogue who needs the love of a good woman. Sure enough, he soon falls for plucky Gail (Deborah Mailman), the brightest girl in the group.
In one unfortunate moment, O’Dowd’s Irishness proves inconvenient. A euphoric speech about the joys of soul music – towards which the titular Sapphires are nudged – would, even if delivered by an Antiguan, invite comparisons with similar routines from The Commitments. Spoken by a Mullingar man, it may cause Roddy Doyle to fume quietly in his lair.
That noted, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that, without Chris, The Sapphires would feel unbearably insubstantial. This is not to suggest the home actors are anything less than charming. Chewing their way through the numbers with great enthusiasm, they swell the screen with energy throughout.
Mailman – survivor of the original Australian stage show – is particularly impressive. Jessica Mauboy, an alumna of Australian Idol, exercises her powerful lungs at every opportunity. However, those stage origins do show through. Too much of the perfunctory action feels like a holding pattern between rousing singalongs. The unstoppable determination to make us, yes, feel good occasionally feels a little oppressive.
Warwick Thornton, director of the excellent Samson and Delilah, returns to cinematography duties and works hard at infusing the images with sweaty miasma. But, though location snippets of Shanghai do add Asian authenticity, many of the Vietnam sequences have the studio-bound, constrained feel of an early M*A*S*H episode.
Still, only the meanest of spirits will fail to find anything to enjoy in The Sapphires. Even if the main body of the picture leaves you cold, the closing shots of the real-life group will surely drag a tear from those reluctant ducts. Feel good, damn you!