If Great Britain truly is, as Louis de Bernières describes it, “an immense lunatic asylum” in love with its own eccentricities, one need only look to the Scottish Isle of Todday for proof. Thrown so far out into the Atlantic Ocean that the only thing to the west is another continent, the islanders revel in their own insularity, regarding outsiders with amused contempt. Largely untouched by World War Two, their biggest wartime inconvenience is a particularly enthusiastic Home Guard officer named Captain Wagget (Eddie Izzard) who sets up roadblocks on country lanes. But then the unthinkable happens: the island runs out of whisky thanks to wartime rationing. The news rocks the islanders who consider whisky “the water of life.” The old folks wander the streets dejectedly. Men confine themselves to their beds. Even the local minister Macalister (James Cosmo) feels the effects: he resorts to pilfering communion wine during the drought. But one man’s tragedy is another island’s miracle. One foggy night a ship carrying 50,000 cases of Scotch whisky to New York runs aground in the rocks. All that whisky, all that “water of life” is right there for the taking.
So the stage is set for Gille MacKinnon’s Whisky Galore!, a remake of Alexander Mackendrick’s classic 1949 Ealing Studios comedy. As with the original film, MacKinnon’s remake (or “modern interpretation” as the advertising insists) is less than a traditional narrative than an elongated character study where the character just so happens to be an island. While much of the comedy predictably comes from the clash between islanders and outsiders, the true joy of the film comes from watching the islanders twist themselves into pretzels trying to preserve their odd traditions in the face of a unique crisis. When news arrives of the wrecked ship’s precious cargo, a horde of islanders assembles a small fleet of rowboats to capture the unexpected booty. The problem is that the news comes on a Saturday night: right as they set out Macalister appears and rings a bell, bellowing that the Sabbath has just begun. The islanders, all strict Sabbatarians, dejectedly return to their homes. It doesn’t matter that many of them are going through withdrawal. It doesn’t matter that the foolhardy Captain Wagget has notified the mainland of the accident and they may only have a few hours before the cargo is officially recovered. It’s the Sabbath: nobody can work, nobody can play. But woe to the man who stands in their way at 12:01 that night.
Another priceless conflict: a soldier returned from two years on the African front wants to marry his sweetheart. But, as the elders tell him, there can be no marriage on Todday without a special engagement ceremony. And there can be no ceremony without whisky. As a soldier, he can’t allow the islanders to steal the rationed whisky. But if he should be snuck up on, incapacitated, and tied up, there’s not much he could do to stop them, is there? The fact that he must coach several islanders how to properly do said sneaking is just a…minor detail.
Whisky Galore! is first and foremost comfort cinema: it’s meant to be slung over the shoulders like a warm blanket, soothing its viewers with gentle humor and superficial conflicts where nobody really gets in danger or trouble. Even Izzard’s Captain Wagget—the closest thing the film has to an antagonist besides the islanders’ self-defeating anachronisms—is more harmless, ineffectual buffoon than threat. And this, counterintuitively, is the film’s greatest problem. MacKinnon re-envisions the nudge-nudge wink-wink civil disobedience of the original film for greeting card pablum. Where the original film was deliciously subversive in that conservative “Keep Calm and Carry On” British manner, this remake feels unnecessarily anesthetized. It doesn’t help that the film seems more concerned with being inoffensive than funny: the movie rarely elicited more than a quiet chuckle, even in the more madcap scenes like the sequence where the islanders hide bottles of whisky in preposterous places like in roof gutters or fake graves. In trying to “re-interpret” Mackendrick’s immortal classic, MacKinnon made his film inconsequential. And that’s a fate worse than spoiled whisky.