This 2019 biographical comedy-drama, based on a true story about the Cornish fishermen-cum-folk singers, is directed by Chris Foggin. It stars Daniel Mays, James Purefoy, Tuppence Middleton, David Hayman, Dave Johns, Maggie Steed and Noel Clarke.
Music executive and Londoner Danny (Mays) arrives in the small Cornish fishing village of Port Isaac for a sailing stag weekend with work friends. There, they are immediately taken aback by how “backwards” the community is.
Danny’s boss, Troy (Clarke), gives him the task of signing up a group of fishermen and sailors who sing sea shanties under the name Fisherman’s Friends. Troy leaves Danny to complete the signing, unaware it’s just a joke at his expense.
Struggling to bond with the tight-knit group, Danny befriends singer and fisherman Jim (Purefoy) and his daughter Alwyn (Middleton) and begins to see just how raw and pure their talent is, and makes it his mission to sign them up as his life begins to change for the better…
This true story about a group of Cornish sailors who land a record deal is founded on fact but dotted with fiction from the outset. Danny, his friends and his music label are fictional, as it was a BBC radio presenter who discovered home-made CDs of the group while on holiday in Cornwall and convinced his producer to give them a shot. However, as is the way with these films “based on a true story/events”, there is a narrative to weave and a story to tell for the masses while respecting the source material, which is done near-perfectly here.
Fisherman’s Friends is just like their Cornish setting – quaint, warm-at-heart and pure. It’s a wonderfully peaceful and endearing slice of British film-making set primarily in Port Isaac, a real-life fishing village in Cornwall, at the South-Western most point of England. It’s a place where the small community meet for pub quizzes every week, know the daily routines and work of all around them and are woken by crying seagulls and the smell of the sea crashing over the rocks. Director Chris Foggin and cinematographer Simon Tindall make the best use of their setting to really paint a tranquil picture of the sailors and their story.
It’s a classic fish-out-of-water / culture clash story with Londoner Daniel Mays struggles to drive down narrow Cornish streets, find mobile phone reception and is amused at the fact one can’t by croissants for breakfast because “this is Cornwall, my lover, not Calais!” We’re reminded of these two separate ways of life when we see and hear the hustle and bustle of London thanks to slick suits, police sirens and tall skyscrapers compared to a small pub, quaint bed and breakfasts and fishing trawlers.
While this is a story about discovering a unique and different sort of “buoy” band with the eldest member being 80 years young, it also explores what it means to find happiness in small things via Danny, played perfectly by cheeky chappy Daniel Mays with enough compassion and heart to care about his journey. What we would all do to breathe in fresh air over that of a smog-filled city and have a peaceful morning breakfast without mobile phones or traffic outside. It’s these little moments Danny discovers that make him happy and be a better person, and in turn, makes us feel happy to escape with him for a couple of hours. Mays has a natural chemistry with the lovely Tuppence Middleton, and also with rugged sailor James Purefoy who has a wonderfully honed Cornish accent, as do all the cast, that make this more authentic than expected. It honours the real people who made this story possible, and you totally can buy into their story.
This is all wrapped up in a bow by the mighty lungs of the Fisherman’s Friends; sailors and fishermen who have grown up with sea shanties and community in their blood and so sing from the heart to keep over 600 years of Naval shanties alive. When you hear the cast (spliced with the original singers) belt out tunes in a pub singalong or even outside by the sea, you understand why they are a surprise success – they tap into a sense of humanity. It sounds natural, raw and pure. They transport you back to a time when fellow men and women made their way of life on the open sea, surrounded by crashing waves and dangerous weather all to serve their country and their people. This is not lost by the group and it’s that sense of unity that sells to the masses.
There’s no need for synthesisers, drum machines and up-temp beats and bands; it’s all about singing from the heart and understanding harmony, passion and timing and what the words truly mean. These moments ripple pride and joy across the story, and, sometimes unexpectedly, tug at your heart-strings in some beautifully shot moments.
What is also pleasant is while you know where the film is going, not just from the outcome of the band, but Danny’s own story of self-discovery and hopefully finding what it means to be happy, there are some outcomes you think you can see coming, but don’t come of anything and it’s something else entirely which is a nice little sleight of hand by writers Nick Moorcroft, Meg Leonard and Piers Ashworth. Of course, it’s not genre changing or probably going to rock the youth market, but it’s not here to. It’s got a perfect target audience and the grounded, natural humour and mature cast drive this home without pandering to anyone just to get bums on seats.
It’s not over-long and will have you tapping your toes along the way and leaving with a strong swell of warmth in your heart and, probably, have you wanting to either visit Port Isaac and breathe in that fresh sea air and feel alive, or simply buying their Top 10 charting album to hear those shanties for yourself.
Directed by: Chris Foggin
Cast: Tuppence Middleton, James Purefoy, Daniel Mays