Hunky Dory (2012)

Review first published in S&S Mar 2012

Hunky Dory

Synopsis: South Wales, Summer 1976. Recently returned from London to teach drama in her local comprehensive, Miss Vivienne May rehearses a rock opera version of The Tempest with her final years, facing attrition amongst her cast members and opposition from conservative colleagues. Playing Ferdinand, sensitive Davy has a troubled home life, and is mooning over ex-girlfriend (and co-star) Stella who has fallen for an older Afro-Caribbean boy. When the pupil playing Prospero withdraws from the production, Vivienne recruits the kindly Headmaster as a replacement, in part to keep him on side. Talented but disaffected Kenny is half-heartedly drawn into the world of his skinhead brother and, unable to tolerate the ribbings of his classmates, quits his role as Caliban. Identifying with the ‘outsider’ role of Ariel, Evan comes out to his adoring best friend Deno. Musician Jake gets serious with Vicki, but tries to conceal the relationship from his best friend (and Vicki’s brother) Lewis – eventually leading to friction between the boys. Davy transfers his affections from Stella to Vivienne, who gently rebuffs him. Davy’s younger brother Angus, upset at being abandoned by his mother, runs away. The school hall is burnt down, with the police, and several of the school staff, suspecting Kenny – although he is eventually released for lack of evidence. Angus comes back, and is reconciled with his father. Without a venue, Vivienne decides to move the performance out into the open air, and persuades Kenny to return to the production. It is a magical night.


“There have to be boundaries, lines that do not get crossed.”

It is the hot summer of 1976, and this warning from the Headmaster (Robert Pugh) of a South Wales comprehensive seems unlikely to be heeded. After all, for both his immediate addressee, Bohemian drama teacher Miss Vivienne May (Minnie Driver), and more importantly for her final-year wards on the cusp of adulthood, the breaking of boundaries is key to self-expression and self-discovery. And so, as she helps her pupils put on a rock opera version of The Tempest amidst vocal objections from the more conservative members of the school staff, lines will indeed be crossed: not just the usual illicit adolescent occupations of swearing, smoking, drinking and sweaty fumbling, but also love (or at least longing) across the divides of race, generation and sex, even as Shakespeare is coupled with Bowie on an improvised stage where sea meets land.

Genre, too, is unbounded in Hunky Dory. On the one hand it is semi-autobiographical, set in the year when director Marc Evans finished high school in Wales, and when his co-writer Laurence Coriat (who also collaborated on Patagonia) crossed the Channel to become, just like Viv’s eccentric colleague Sylvie (Julia Perez), a French teaching assistant. On the other hand, it is all at once a rites-of-passage ensemble drama, a musical, and a nostalgia piece. Evans and producer Jon Finn (Billy Elliott) first conceived the film’s story while working together on My Little Eye (2002), long before America’s High School Musical and Glee would come to dominate the whole ‘let’s put on a show’ teen market – but while there is something decidedly British about both the setting and sensibility of Evans’ film, where dreamy aspirations clash with smalltown social realism, and where the musical performances, instead of being slickly lip-synched to a canned soundtrack, were recorded ‘live’ by the talented young cast, it also comes with an calculated upbeat, enshrined in the title (from the name of David Bowie’s fourth album) and carried through to a finale which ties up every narrative loose end with a shiny bow (and a glittery show). Yet if these characters are “such stuff as dreams are made of”, and their rosy adult futures are outlined in a conventional teen movie coda, the image of soon-to-be-PM Margaret Thatcher glimpsed on a television, and the economic bleakness of our own present, suggest a more bittersweet outlook.

Anton Bitel