Fisherman’s Friends tells the true(ish) story of a Cornish folk band signed by Universal Records in 2010. Understandably, the £1 million deal made national headlines — a collection of working sailors, bellowing out sea-shanties whilst on their shore leave, make for unlikely pop stars. Nonetheless, the aptly named “The Fisherman’s Friends” were a hit, with their throaty a cappella album scoring a top-10 position in the UK charts.
For those unfamiliar with British geography: Cornwall lies at the westernmost tip of England’s inverted “L” shape. Its rugged cliffs are the only part of the country exposed to the crashing waves of the Atlantic. Cornwall is stark, remote, and beautiful, with an economy dominated by two industries: Fishing and tourism.
Our hero is of the latter. Fictional A&R man Danny (Daniel Mays, “The Limehouse Golem”) ventures away from his plush London-life for a boozy stag-do on the Cornish coast. After being rescued by the coastguard for attempting to paddleboard whilst drunk, Danny notices the eponymous seamen “singing the rock ‘n’ roll of 1752” on Port Isaac’s slipway. His boss, Troy (Noel Clarke, “I Kill Giants”), full-to-the-brim with laddish banter, deploys a hilarious practical joke by encouraging Danny to get the “band” signed up. After all, “who would buy a record sung by ten hairy-arsed fishermen?”
Whilst the sailors initially refuse, Danny ingratiates himself with group-leader Jim (James Purefoy, “Churchill”) by adopting the gruff Cornish-lifestyle, even crewing one the fisherman’s trawlers. Jim is impressed by this display of reformed masculinity — “round ‘ere, a man’s word is as strong as Cornish oak” — and agrees to Danny’s terms. After discovering Troy’s hoax, Danny has a “Jerry Maguire” moment and breaks away from the label, certain that this group of simple country-folk, “singing with genuine passion about something we’ve all lost,” can make it all the way to the top.
Full disclosure: My family has strong ties with this part of North Cornwall. Whilst we originate 50 miles away on the “wrong side of the River Tamar,” our accents and traditions are very similar. This regional affiliation could explain my defensiveness and why I found the portrayal of Cornish life in Fisherman’s Friends so obviously reductive, although the real reason is likely more obvious — it’s not a particularly good film anyway.
As mentioned, most scenes appear to circle around differing forms of male posturing. Yet rather than present a balanced analysis, it offers tonally black and white characters that feel like they’ve been scribbled in crayon. Danny and his work mates are so abhorrently toxic that it’s baffling to understand why any can stomach the other. These lads — riding the banter-train all the way to Lashville — are as thin as a seaside postcard. Just as two-dimensional is Alwyn (Tuppence Middleton, “Downton Abbey”), Jim’s daughter, who serves no other thematic purpose than being the “girl next door” for Danny to woo. Making money with the band is one thing, but shacking up with the pretty country-girl? That’s the real prize! (*fist bump*).
Oppositely, the fishermen themselves — are portrayed as a quiet patriarchy — loyal, controlled, and domineering. You won’t get much emotion from these “real men,” although when the tears do come, they’re meant to be all the more poignant. Yet while we’re supposedly presented with ten weathered Cornishmen, a keen ear and a trip to IMDB reveals that not a single actor originates from the area. Instead, we’re offered a selection of regionally appropriated accents, each man doing their best pirate voice — “shiverrrr me timberrrrs.”
Indeed, the film ends up making a mockery of the region it’s trying to promote. We run through a checklist of teenage-level jokes about incest, bestiality, and general dimwittedness. The overall message is truly confusing — is a simple life in the country better than making loads of cash in the city? Yes, but with an added caveat that it’s okay to completely sell out if a record company comes along. Or a film studio.
This underlying hypocrisy means that while Fisherman’s Friends is trying to be cozy and charming, it is utterly and totally not. The crackling warmth of a Cornish fire is missing from its heart. Instead, we’re trapped inside on a rainy day with bad company — a collection of forgettable and interchangeable characters in a film that feels forty years out-of-date.
It’s best thrown back in the sea.