Jennifer Saunders reportedly started working on the script for a film version of her cult show Absolutely Fabulous back in 2012. This was four years before the nightmare of the Brexit happened, when the UK was still ensconced in the EU. And though the film wrapped before the EU referendum took place, it’s difficult to watch the film without contextualizing it in what the UK looks like now: smaller, meaner, and more isolated. The film provides an hour and a half when viewers can watch a Great Britain frozen in time before the plunge: one in which races coexist, where London pushes its way ahead when it comes to creativity, multiculturalism, and globalism. In short, Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie works as an ante-Brexit fantasy because it allows viewers to savor a UK that remains relevant in the international scene.
That’s not to say that Saunders’ creations: Edina Monsoon or Patsy Stone are great ambassadors of tolerance. They’re not. But they are international. The show’s 25-year history relies on the two characters’ international appeal. The show took them to various locations throughout the EU and the world. For Edina and Patsy to successfully delude themselves and others into believing they’re the last word on what’s fabulous, they have to have a stilettoed heel firmly stabbed in more than one country.
It seems strange that the script took some four years to write (though Saunders was busy during that time writing other shows, acting, and writing a book), because the plot seems paper thin. It’s an excuse to string together Saunders’ sharp-as-a-needle wit. The story takes place some four years later after the last episode, “Olympics” which yet again, highlighted just how international London is (and should remain). In the ensuing four years, life has been tough for both Edina and Patsy (Joanna Lumley). The two women are not only facing ageism in an industry hellbent on erasing older women, but they’re also looking at a pop culture landscape that somehow has passed them by. Edina is a PR maven, but no longer a tycoon. Her client list is limited to Lulu, Emma “Baby Spice” Bunton, and Queen Noor. That Lulu and Bunton appear as recurring characters – as themselves – throughout the series, lampooning their waning celebrity status show just how attractive Saunders is (and it proves that they’re great sports….Queen Noor hasn’t appeared on AbFab, though).
To inject some much-needed money into her bank, Edina plans to write a memoir. And why not? Every reality “star” has some kind of tome popping up in the bookstores. But Edina has always been averse to hard work – particularly hard work that she doesn’t understand, so when she shows up at her publishers with garbagey nonsense, she’s rebuked. Stung by not getting a hefty advance, Edina is thrown a lifeline when she learns that Kate Moss is looking for PR. At a fashion event, Edina shmoozes with the London glitterati, and Saunders crams in as many celebrity cameos as she can. It’s wall-to-wall famous people, and there are so many faces that it becomes difficult to figure out when we’re watching a celebrity cameo and when are we watching an actor play a part. Jon Hamm does his usually-funny shtick, playing himself, and we get a preening Jerry Hall good naturedly sending up her image. When Edina spots her nemesis, fellow PR monster, Claudia Bing (Celia Imrie), she makes a mad dash for Kate Moss, knocking the supermodel off the balcony and into the Thames.
Now, Edina is wanted for murder and flees London with her pal to the South of France. The plan is that the two lay low and live in Cannes indefinitely. It’s not much of a plan, and of course it falls to pieces because it appears as if the whole world is collectively in despair over the death of Kate Moss. All of the news coverage, including the scrawling crawl on the bottom of the television screens, is devoted to the late and lovely Kate Moss. Flowers and teddy bears pop up on the makeshift memorial, mirroring the extravagant and media-orchestrated world grief over Princess Diana’s death (with time, those of us who blubbered and sobbed can recognize that even though the death was tragic, we did take things too far).
The setting takes the characters out of their usual environment. Some of the best moments of AbFab took place in Edina’s living room, kitchen, or office. It’s in these spaces that Saunders had to rely heavily on caustic wit and a complete flagrant disregard for taboos. The characters were often thrown together and sparred with each other, nursing heavy grievances. While Patsy and Edina had a sick and codependent friendship, it’s their interaction with the other characters that added much of the darkness to the comedy. Edina’s daughter Saffy (Julia Sawalha), was a target of abuse and resentment from Patsy, while Edina herself approached her daughter with neglect and contempt. But years of growing up in such a twisted household made Saffy strong and reliant in her own right, and she was capable of hurling the abuse just as well as her mother. Speaking of mothers, Edina’s mother, Mrs. Monsoon (the seemingly ageless June Whitfield), is a constant reminder of just how Edina turned out wrong: a deceivingly cherry and lovely facade that hid a colder interior. When the four women were confined in a space together, Saunders would write some crackling dialogue that would tear open emotional wounds that never got a chance to heal.
But in Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie, Saunders takes her troupe of actors on a trip. And it’s all beautiful, visually. Cannes is gorgeous, even when you’re not trying to idealize it. Much of the action takes place on the grounds of the Grand-Hotel du Cap-Ferrat, where beautiful people swan about in expensive clothing and relax around stunning swimming pools. And when Patsy and Edina go on the lam to avoid being caught by the gendarme, we’re treated to our two heroines indulging in some nifty physical comedy. It’s a good thing, too, because Saunders and Lumley are crack physical comics. The sight of the two of them smashed into the microscopic cab of a three-wheeled delivery van is priceless – the sight of seeing them in said van, slowly sinking into a swimming pool is even better.
As a writer, Jennifer Saunders excels when her characters are throwing around quips and one-liners. She’s best when she’s creating situations that allow for her characters to be terrible and cruel to each other. Edina and Patsy are at their most appealing when they’re being vile and unappealing. The characters aren’t real people, they’re glorious cartoons come to life. There’s little “development” or “character growth” though there are spots of introspection, when Patsy and Edina stop for a moment to digest just how ridiculous their lives sometimes can be. But thankfully we don’t get too much of that – Absolutely Fabulous is meant to be a Bacchanalian feast of decadence and impropriety. And if the caper in the middle part of the film starts to show strain, it’s all easily digestible because it’s so damn funny.
And as escapist fantasy, Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie couldn’t have come at a better time. The summer of 2016 will go down as one of the most depressing and unstable times in recent history. Starting with the July 12 terrorist attack in Orlando, Florida, it feels like a week doesn’t pass by with some tragic or catastrophic news. The instances of terrorism in Nice and Munich threaten the kind of cosmopolitan glossy world that Sanders presents in her film. The characters seem blissfully innocent of the carnage and xenophobia that take place in a reality just a few steps away from the triumphant end. When Kylie Minogue warbles the show’s theme, it takes on an unintended poignancy, because in the current political climate on the international stage seems intent on crushing the kind of international feeling that the film tries to impart.