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Look, I don’t want to be a killjoy. I went into this film not asking for very much. The script didn’t have to be good. It didn’t even really need to be okay. It just needed to get the job done, filling time between one ABBA number and the next.
But oh my God, what a mess.
—This post, obviously, has spoilers—
I think it’s important to stress that I thought the first Mamma Mia film was excellent. People who say “The new one is silly, just like the old one” are, I think, being unfair on the original. Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again is not in the same league. There’s a lot to work through here, so let’s take it from the top.
1. Donna is dead?!
Okay, so this was a… bold… move from the filmmakers, and it certainly had a powerful emotional impact. But why was it done like this? Why kill off the most memorable star of the first film, and literally the main character of the second one, before it’s even begun? It would have made more dramatic sense, and created more emotional intensity, to have Donna terminally ill, and dying at the very end. There were only two reasons I could think of for not doing it this way. Firstly, maybe Meryl Streep didn’t want to be in the film… but then she was in the film, so this can’t be the answer. And secondly, maybe the filmmakers didn’t want their audiences to be depressed by having a death at the end. But then, if you don’t want your audience to feel upset and bittersweet about mortality, why kill off Donna and then make an entire film about how great she was and what a tragedy it is that she’s dead? So instead we’re left with no sense of closure: we’re given the shocking fact of Donna’s death, but no understanding of what she died of, which would help us process the gaping hole she’s left in the middle of the film. (“Skin cancer,” announced my friend, after watching Donna frolic in the Greek sun for days on end.)
2. One Long Disturbing Eulogy
So, the premise of the film is based on the fact that Donna is now suddenly and mysteriously dead. This colours both plots of the film, with disconcerting results. For the “young Donna” scenes, Donna’s inevitable death helps create a sort of halo around her: she’s perfect, she’s wonderful, and it feels like such a damn shame that she’s nearly halfway through her life already. Donna is treated so reverently that I actually double-checked whether anyone from ABBA had died recently, because I couldn’t think of another reason why a fictional character was being given a send-off like this. If young Donna has a single flaw (except horse-thieving), then I didn’t notice. This is in contrast to Meryl Streep’s Donna, who was movingly subtle, with complexities and conflicts that drove the first film.
3. Unhealthy coping mechanisms
Now, fast-forward to the present day, and once again, acknowledgement of Donna as a rounded human has been replaced by worship of her memory. This is taken way too far by her daughter, Sophie. Sophie’s entire character and plotline is basically her unhealthy quest to resurrect her mother by becoming her mother. She appears to have shut herself off from all the friends we saw in the first film – they aren’t even at the christening. Instead, she’s surrounded herself with her mother’s friends and former lovers, and dedicated her life to carrying out Donna’s dream of running a successful hotel on the island. She’s even named it “Hotel Bella Donna.”
When expressed to Sky, her desire to stay there isn’t expressed as “I love it here,” but as (I’m paraphrasing) “I have to do it because Mum can’t.” Sky suggests that since it’s been a year since Donna died, Sophie needs to move on. Sophie rejects this advice, and it looks as though her storyline is going to be about learning to let go. Instead she does the opposite. She becomes her grandmother’s surrogate daughter, winning the family reconciliation that her mother never got; she takes Donna’s place in her old band, Donna and the Dynamos; and when she tells Sky that she’s pregnant, she’s more excited about the thought of experiencing what her mother experienced than about starting a family of her own. Sky has to gently remind her that he’s part of this, too. And at the end, in the christening scene, Sophie and Donna very clearly blend together, almost becoming one. Donna is put on a pedestal from the very beginning, and rather than getting closure, Sophie has fulfilled her grief-fantasy. Happy ending, anyone?
4. The grandparents
I’m sure there are some hardcore ABBA fans out there who figured out that Señor Cienfuegos was a craftily-disguised excuse for whipping out Fernando. I did not make this connection. Instead, I found him such an odd and unsettling presence that I actually wondered whether the plot twist at the end would be that he had murdered Donna. Every time he said something meaningful or reassuring, I got a little more creeped out. It turns out, of course, that I literally could not have been more wrong. That is, assuming he was actually Donna’s father… Or was he? In a film franchise about paternity and parenthood, it was strange and frustrating that nobody even raised the question…
This brings us to Cher. (Fine, the character is called Ruby, but we all think of her as Cher.) She was a fun character – so why was she awkwardly shoved in at the end of the film, when everything (see point 5) had already been resolved? When she did turn up, there wasn’t time to deal with all the emotional baggage that had been implied from the start of the film, so she had a quick reunion with Sophie and then everything was fine. Surely, surely the film would have been better if Cher had arrived halfway through, when Sophie was at a low ebb, and they had to work to fix their difficult relationship? Even better, what if Donna was still alive at that point, on her deathbed, and she got to confront her mother and make her peace with her before dying at the end of the film? Don’t you dare tell me that Mamma Mia is too realistic to give Donna that sort of satisfying closure. (Did you notice I gave the film a pass for the coincidence of Fernando Cienfuegos ending up at the Hotel Bella Donna?)
5. Fake tension
In the original film, there was plenty of emotional drama, serious dilemmas and big decisions to make. Not so much in the sequel. In the present-day storyline, there isn’t much at stake. Donna’s already dead, the hotel is going to reopen no matter what, and Sophie doesn’t find out that she’s pregnant until she and Sky have sorted out their relationship issues. Wait – what happened to the relationship issues?
The device of “I can’t be there because this thing’s come up… Actually no, I realised that you’re more important” is pushed to its limits by the predictable moments when Bill and Harry bail on their important commitments. I reckon the film gets away with those two scenes. (Because it’s Mamma Mia, and feel-good, and therefore beyond criticism, remember!) But it’s different with Sky, because so much of the plot’s tension relies on the fact that he has to be on the far side of the world. Sky feels distant from Sophie, and he’s worried about how she’s dedicating her life to the new hotel. He felt like it was necessary for him to skip the hotel opening because the six-week masterclass was too good an opportunity to miss (thanks, exposition) and now he’s been offered his dream job… on the wrong side of the world. This is a genuinely big dilemma. We understand why it’s a crisis for him as he and Sophie sing One of Us (with a gloriously clumsy shot that literally breaks the fourth wall by revealing that they’re singing in different rooms of the same film set). But next time we see him, he’s packed it all in and abandoned his life beyond Sophie. Never mind then, I guess.
If the problem can be resolved that easily, without anyone or anything changing onscreen, then it was a fake problem in the first place. Rosie even says to Bill (in so many words) that it’s not possible to change what you want without changing as a person, but apparently it’s fine when Sky effortlessly does exactly this.
The other piece of fake tension was the least realistic storm scene I think I’ve ever seen. That’s just not how storms work. (I notice that Señor Cienfuegos knew the storm was coming, but then, despite being hotel manager, took zero precautions to prepare for it.) Sophie breaking off her conversation and running into the rain crying “He warned me this might happen!” was so stagey that it drew attention to the storm’s contrived role of threatening the big hotel launch. What can I say, it felt wrong to me.
Okay, so most people don’t know what an Oxford University graduation looks like… but it doesn’t look like that. I found it quite funny how the scene was basically an American graduation in Oxford robes. In reality, Oxford’s ceremony is so arcane that the graduating students are given a lesson beforehand on how it works, and then each part of the ritual is carefully stage-managed – in Latin – with members of the University on hand to help students when they inevitably get confused and forget what to do next. The idea of a student being allowed to give a valedictory address would honestly be as startling to the traditionalists as the thought of three students breaking into song in ABBA costumes. (And anyway, New College was still men-only in the summer of 1979…) I get it, it’s just a film – but I think it would have been more effective to have Donna and the Dynamos break into song when they’re led up to have the weird Latin blessing from the Vice-Chancellor. Oxford would have looked grander and fustier, and Donna would have looked more daring. But that’s arguably an unfair point, since most people in the audience wouldn’t know why this scene is so jarring, so I’ll move on.
7. Donna’s summer of love
Firstly, Donna’s travels bear only a passing resemblance to Donna’s diary at the start of the first film. Here’s a recap:
“July 17th: What a night! Sam rowed me over to the little island. We danced on the beach, and we kissed on the beach, and… Sam’s the one, I know he is. I’ve never felt like this before.
All this time Sam’s been telling me he loves me, and now he’s announced that he’s engaged, so he’s gone home to get married and I’m never going to see him again.
August 4th: What a night. Bill rented a motorboat and I took him over to the little island. Though I’m still obsessed with Sam, Bill’s so wild and such a funny guy, one thing led to another, and…
August 11th, Harry turned up out of the blue, so I said I’d show him the island. He was so sweet and understanding I couldn’t help it, and…”
Note that in the sequel, Sam does not announce that he’s engaged, and Bill does not rent a motorboat, and in my book climbing into someone’s bed in the middle of the night does not count as “one thing led to another”… But the main thing is, after Young Harry reappeared in Greece, I spent the whole film waiting for him to reach Donna and be sweet and understanding. Are we supposed to believe that he spontaneously flew all the way from France in pursuit of what he thought was true love, and then didn’t even bother getting the ferry the next day? If the diary from the previous film no longer matters, and we’re going to accept all the glaring continuity errors, then why bother to have Harry come to Greece at all?
The biggest thing I didn’t like was how Donna’s wild summer of self-discovery was reduced to a hectic few days. In the first film, Donna has deep and meaningful bonds with all three potential fathers of her children. In the sequel, even her fling with Sam seems to last less than a week. I’m surprised she even remembered what Harry looked like. As for Bill, do you remember the bit in the first film when Donna tearfully confessed to Tanya and Rosie that Sam hadn’t been the only man who had been around at the time of Sophie’s conception? That now makes no sense, because Tanya and Rosie had both met But who needs sense when you have ABBA music, right…?
8. Here We Go Again
There was one stand-out moment when I thought “Why are they singing this? It’s completely the wrong song!” It was the moment when Donna chose to sing Mamma Mia to show how heartbroken and upset she was feeling, because her relationship was dead forever. Except that that song is about the exact opposite. Ah well, I guess ABBA doesn’t have any decent songs about the pain of falling in love with men who turn out to be liars and cheaters, so let’s move on to Julie Andrews singing Angel Eyes…
Oh, hold on a minute…
How did they get this wrong?! Angel Eyes is perfect for Young Donna to sing in the bar, and they sing it in the film literally five minutes later. Why on earth couldn’t they have swapped those two songs? They would have had to change approximately two lines of dialogue when Rosie is talking about Bill: “We had a stormy relationship and I never trusted him, but every time he came back to me he’d be able to melt my heart. So I had to push him out for good. It’s lucky he’s not coming to the party, really, because I always find it so hard to stay angry with that bloody man…” Then they sing Mamma Mia instead of Angel Eyes, and Rosie’s later scenes with Bill also make much more sense. Fixed.
9. It’s Actually Quite Problematic
First, there’s the way that Harry’s homosexuality was erased from this film (Omid Djalili raising a flirty eyebrow at him doesn’t count), an oddly regressive move in 2018 for such a camp and flamboyant franchise.
Second, there’s the fact that Harry and Bill both try to pressurise Donna into sleeping with them, and are very reluctant to take no for an answer. With Bill, this takes place about ten minutes after they’ve first met, when she is trapped on his boat and entirely in his power. Okay, they’re both ultimately nice guys; I understand that in the end, Donna does choose to sleep with them because she wants to; granted, it might have been necessary in order to make a couple of musical numbers make sense. I don’t want to be too sensitive, but the way that the film presents sex with Harry and Bill as a Good Thing, and Donna’s lack of consent as a pesky complication that needs to be overcome, sits awkwardly with the cultural conversation of the past year around issues of male power and how female unwillingness is presented/treated.
Anyway, for me, the more blatant issue is the film’s presentation of the Greek locals. It’s consistently patronising, even gently mocking. The musician who looks like a metrosexual Sirius Black is hapless and goofy, and so is the fisherman who’s trying to reach his true love across the water. Sofia the bar owner is entertaining, but I still can’t think of a single line by a Greek character that we weren’t supposed to either laugh at or think “Aww, how cute.” Imagine the impact if the exact same film, instead of being in Greece, was set on an island somewhere off the coast of Africa or South-East Asia. And as for its treatment of socio-economic issues, it belittles the fishermen’s hardships and makes their struggles little more than the setup to a joke. The film should probably have steered clear of the topic altogether.
10. More endings than Return of the King
Seriously, there were so many. There was the moment when Sky, Bill and Harry triumphantly arrived, concluding all outstanding elements of the plot at that point. Then Donna staying alone in the farmhouse and giving birth. Then the Cher mini-story, attached at the end of the main plot. Then two christenings (they both count). Then the final song. I might have missed some; I might have got the order wrong. By that time I was just waiting for it to end, having had my fill of ABBA and Greek scenery, and I kept thinking it was over, only to be disappointed.
11. Everything else
That covers the main points, I think, but it certainly doesn’t cover everything. There were so many throwaway moments that were frankly baffling. My personal top three:
I winced when Donna said that Kalokairi was once considered the edge of the world – sorry, literally nobody has ever thought that, about any Greek island. There’s more land in every direction. There are islands everywhere. Then there’s the bit where Sam says that Bill is his best friend, which is a surprise for everyone, probably including Bill. As for what Donna thought she was doing with that well-groomed horse that she decided to adopt as her own, without asking any questions… Well, I guess we can’t ask her now. Unless we ask her singing ghost.