Sunday, 7 May 2017
It's central construct of playing witness to your own past might be as creaky as the boards the middle-aged Barbara Windsor is treading, and the script has a fair few clunkers, but Babs is mostly saved by some peerless performances that make this a amiable way to pass ninety minutes, but some way off the kind of satisfying success ITV biopics like Jeff Pope's Cilla enjoyed.
Samantha Spiro is effortless as the middle-aged, seemingly washed up Windsor, as you would expect from someone who jokingly admits to having played Windsor for half her life now (she had previously played her at the National in 1998's Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle and Dick, reprising the role for the TV adaptation, Cor Blimey, in 2000) but it's Jaime Winstone who really shines here with the role of the young Babs, capturing her sexy look, her defiant pluck and that infamous wiggle and giggle that made her both a national treasure and the wet dream fantasy for many of schoolboy in the 1960s. Neither actress goes for an impersonation, as that wouldn't be enough to sustain a biopic alone, but they capture an essence of the person remarkably well.
They're both nicely supported (ooh-err!) by Nick Moran as Windsor's father, the man whose love she was constantly searching for throughout her life, an unfortunately all too underused Leanne Best as her mother (why give her so little to work with? Best is a brilliant performer who lifts anything she appears in), Luke Allen-Gale as bad boy Ronnie Knight, and the inspired casting of Zoe Wanamaker as Joan Littlewood and a wonderful spot of mimicry from Robin Sebastian as Kenneth Williams. Only Alex MacQueen as Windsor's agent jarred; I know he has his screen persona of the prissy, over-enunciating dullard of dubious sexual orientation, and I have liked him in many other things, but it's the only thing he does in each role he takes and it just doesn't sit well when he's required to act outside of comedy or as something or someone else - look at his ineffectual turn as a political villain in series three of Peaky Blinders, and it's the same here.
When the film actually settles down to focus on Barbara's big break with Littlewood's legendary Theatre Workshop, Babs comes alive, but Tony Jordan's script feels compelled to throw in too many in-jokes (the Dame reference, the Carry On style score) and flat footed references ('you've an offer for a film...the producer is Gerald Thomas' *clunk*) that consistently hold the film back and shy away from the answers it's naturally searching for as the film refuses to pinpoint why it feels Windsor's potential was ultimately as squandered as it was, leading her to throw her lot in with the Carry On team. I also really felt like the whole thing was hampered by the little meta-touch of crowbarring the real Windsor into the film; I'm not so cold-hearted to begrudge her her song at the end (performed to an audience made up of the cast and crew, which was a lovely touch) but the other two instances in the middle of the film just feel wrong and out of place, threatening to sink the whole affair. On this occasion, less would have been more.