Naming his film after David Bowie’s fourth album, director Marc Evans attempts to fuse different strands of British culture when a secondary school put on a rock-based musical performance of The Tempest. This portends to an interesting depiction of British culture in 1976 but fails to deliver any real ideological comment.
In the opening scenes there are indications that it will explore complex themes including teenage relationships, the problems of coming-of-age, homosexuality, the nature of education and human nature. For example, at the beginning the camera lingers on some graffiti on a bathroom wall which says ‘Julie Loves Kevin forever’ with ‘Julie’s unrealistic’ inscribed underneath. This iconographic freeze leaves the viewer expectant of an exploration of the turbulent nature of teenage relationships and first love. However, the few relationships between the characters remain undeveloped and shallow. The only relationship that has any partial substance is that between Davy and Miss May but this opens up a whole barrel of questions about paedophilia and student-teacher relationships which remain unexplored. One could argue that the shallow nature of the relationships in the film reflects the true nature of youthful love; yet all the elements of the film lack depth and insight.
Evans tries to merge the private lives of Miss May and the leading roles of the pupils with their coming together to create the play, but does so unsuccessfully. The cut between the performance of the play and the resolution of Davy’s family troubles at the end have no effect on the audience as none of the characters are developed enough to care about or empathise with them. Possibly the most disappointing character is Evan whose ‘coming out’ couldn’t be more clichéd. The few lines he has include ‘I’m an outsider like Caliban’ and ‘do you ever feel like an alien?’ He has a beautiful singing voice but his character isn’t given enough action in the film for it to have any impact when he predictably reveals he is gay. With the many homophobic jokes at the beginning of the film and the resignation of a boy from the play because of a homophobic Dad, one would assume that Evans was trying to comment upon the treatment of gay people in the 1970s and the relation between theatre, self-expression and homosexuality. Yet this only forms an undeveloped side plot in the film, much like the heterosexual relationships.
The narrative of Hunky Dory follows the pattern of The History Boys and Dead Poets Society whereby an inspirational and original teacher injects excitement, motivation and success into the lives of normal teenagers. However, it lacks any real substance, especially intellectually, leaving its plot more reminiscent of High School Musical than the aforementioned films. Although the key plot of the film is the adaptation of The Tempest, surprisingly few references are made to this play or Shakespeare. There are a couple of brief comments which refer to the students struggling with their lines but these are always brushed over in favour of another 70s pop song. After Miss Valentine calls for Miss May to ‘let us stop this petty liberal procrastination’ she is reassured by her deceased father’s notation of Marx’s ‘don’t let the bastards grind you down’. Other than this episode she doesn’t offer any real inspirational, revolutionary attitudes towards teaching or intellectual comment, unlike Douglas Hector in The History Boys or Professor Keating in Dead Poets Society. This lack of real substance leaves the viewer confused at the end when Miss May turns and walks away from the pupils’ joyful performance of ‘It’s a Living Thing’. More confusing than this is the ‘what happened next’ photograph collage which closes the film as none of the characters were that developed and it wasn’t based on a true story.
There is one reason why the plot and substance of this film disappointed me so greatly and that is because on the surface it is beautiful. Its setting, iconography and lighting are all akin to An Education or Never Let Me Go which idealise quaint British rural settings of the second half of the twentieth century. This film could be enjoyed purely visually for its stunning and accurate presentation of Wales in 1976, both in costume design and mise-en-scéne. Its soft yellow wash brings nostalgia into each image even for viewers born after the 70s. The cast is also very musically talented and brought justice to the Bowie and ELO songs, among others. In an interview with This is South Wales, Evans said he first had the idea for this film ten years ago, setting it when he did because ’76 was an iconic year for music and it was one of the hottest summers on record in Wales’. Maybe his main ambition was just to recapture his own summer of 1976.
The sketched stars and guitars that surround the credits of Hunky Dory recall pleasant indie chick flicks such as Juno and 500 Days of Summer which are ostensibly what this film aspires to. Allmusic’s Stephen Thomas Erlewine described Hunky Dory’s namesake album as having ‘a kaleidoscopic array of pop styles, tied together only by Bowie’s sense of vision: a sweeping, cinematic mélange of high and low art, ambiguous sexuality, kitsch, and class’. Perhaps it is this fusion of both high and low art, indie artistic cinema and light-hearted entertainment that Marc Evans was attempting to depict in rural Wales.