Fisherman's Friends is a familiar but fun underdog film with sea shanties


3 stars

On a buck's weekend in Cornwall, a team of London record executives stumble upon a group of singers, a hirsute and scruffy all-male group belting out folksy ditties about the sea.

Danny (Daniel Mays) is convinced by his boss Troy (Noel Clarke) to sign them up. It's only a gag to his boss, but something in the resonant harmonies actually touches Danny.

 Daniel Mays, front, and company in Fisherman's Friends. Picture: Supplied

Daniel Mays, front, and company in Fisherman's Friends. Picture: Supplied

The singers all hail from the charming fishing village of Port Isaac, most of them working fishermen, very much a part of their small community. They aren't much interested in a supposed offer of fame and fortune and the promise of a recording of their music hitting the charts.

So Danny hangs around the town, determined to sign the unlikely boy band, and finding a reason of his own to stick around with Tuppence Middleton's character Alwyn, the recently-divorced daughter of one of the singing fishermen. Will he sign them all up? Can his recording sessions capture their beautiful sound? Who expects the pop-crazy British market to care about a cappella harmonies in a year (the film is set in 2010) when Cheryl Cole and Tinie Tempah owned the charts?

Like The Full Monty and The Commitments before it, Fisherman's Friends introduces the viewer to a group of rogue underdogs and throws a fistful of token obstacles in their path, before a sweeping moment of triumph.

Why start a review with a spoiler like that? Three reasons. Firstly, this film set in a small remote fishing village and fishing tragedies are referenced constantly, in both the shanties and in the dialogue. With this much foreshadowing, the unprepared viewer might suspect they're watching Ken Loach take on the story of the Andrea Gail, with every character set for a cancer-cluster of misery and torment. This isn't that film.

Secondly, the plot moves so slowly in a film with a not-insubstantial running time, I do want the viewer to understand that something eventually does happen in this film.

And thirdly, it's not actually a spoiler. This is one of those "based on a true story" films. This group surprised the British music industry with a gold record in 2010. It owes a debt to several dozen charming feel-good British films.

Many viewers will fondly recall the film's location, actual home to the singing group, as the setting of TV's Doc Martin. Personally, I found it informative that Cornwall contributed something to the world more than hens and pasties.

The casting is fun. The original group of rag-tag scruffs mean the casting staff could look for charm and quirk rather than Versace models. James Purefoy stands out as the group's leader.

The singing group in Fisherman's Friends. Picture: Supplied

The singing group in Fisherman's Friends. Picture: Supplied

As the record executive, long-time character actor Daniel Mays (Rogue One) makes his romantic lead debut, and he is charming, even if his story is somewhat slight. The film's dialogue is equal parts genuinely funny (one character describes the music the boys sing as "the rock and roll of 1752") and a pastiche of every salty sea-dog cliche.

What makes this film a joy is the moody cinematography by Simon Tindall, so atmospheric you can almost taste the sea salt, though that might have been the family-sized bag of chips I downed while watching this. And, of course, there's the music. The charming harmonies, the resonant joy, and the occasional snatch of the convict shanties many of us grew up singing.

This story Familiar but fun underdog tale first appeared on The Canberra Times.