This piece is by our guest writer, Julia Blackwell.
I am sure that many of you will be well aware of the phenomenon that is Mamma Mia (2008), and its recent sequel Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again (2018), the latter of which I have now watched at least five times. The first film has also had multiple viewings over the years and contains one of my most beloved scenes from cinema. Predictably, I was in tears when Donna (Meryl Streep) sings “Slipping Through My Fingers” to her daughter, Sophie (Amanda Seyfried). The song expresses a mother’s realisation that her daughter is now growing up and that she has been unable to spend as much time with her as she had planned. In the film, Donna sings it to Sophie as she helps her dress for her wedding, preparing to give her away. Despite her potential fathers telling Sophie they will give her away during a previous scene, Sophie chooses to reach out to her mum. After all, her mum is the person who has supported her throughout her life so far. “Slipping Through My Fingers” plays over Donna and Sophie not just getting dressed, but laughing together and enjoying their time away from the chaos of the rest of the wedding planning.
My mum passed away when I was ten, four years before the release of Mamma Mia and, as I’m sure others who have lost someone close to them will agree, the full impact of that person’s absence rarely hits you right away. For some it can take years to sink in as you gradually adapt to going through your life stages without them and encounter moments when you wish that, at the very least, you could talk to them. This is how I listened to and watched the “Slipping Through My Fingers” scene. For me it awakened moments I will never have with my mum. I don’t have any burning ambition for a wedding day, but I did find myself wanting to curl up next to her and have her paint my nails.
In the years that followed my first viewing of Mamma Mia, important events began happening for me and even though my mum was not around, I was by no means alone as I went through them. I was fortunate enough to have an incredible group of supportive women around me, especially in the wake of other losses. My dad is a wonderful person, but there are certain topics I would never discuss with him. He’s not very good at painting nails either! In Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again, it is revealed very early on that Donna has passed away and that Sophie now lives with one of her dads, Sam (Pierce Brosnan). Yet Sam is not the character we see Sophie confide in regarding subjects such as her relationship with her husband, Sky (Dominic Cooper). Instead she turns to her mum’s old friends, Tanya and Rosie (Christine Baranski and Julie Walters), who have travelled to Greece to visit her. While there may be men in her life that Sophie can turn to for advice and support, I for one have no interest in listening to Pierce Brosnan wail “Angel Eyes.”
Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again alternates between present-day Sophie planning the re-opening of the hotel previously owned by Donna, and young Donna in 1979 (Lily James) who is using her summer to travel and find herself. Towards the beginning of the film, present-day Sam opens an old photo album to gaze at images of a young Donna smiling at the camera, and this alone began to form a lump in my throat. When I heard my mum had passed away, the first thing I did was gather together photographs of her and lay them across the living room floor. Although I have responded to death by instantly losing control of my emotions, there are also quieter moments of reflection. I believe both to be equally important. For me, a never-ending sequence of overly dramatic tragedies can, at times, be taken too far and play as absurd on screen, evoking unintentional amusement from audiences. But opening up a photo album to look back on a loved one, or asking a friend or family member to paint your nails — these are smaller actions that make the experiences of these characters more realistic. The sequel is full of scenes that struck similar personal chords for me. For example, towards the end of the film, there is a birth scene and although I have never had a baby, I could relate to Donna finding support from other women during times that traditionally involve one’s mother. Furthermore, when I first saw the film I was with my auntie, who is now one of the key female figures in my life and has her own children. Thus, my mind naturally wandered to what she might be thinking as a mother herself. The sequence is my favourite from the film due to the way it connects women and their relationships together.
Donna’s mother, Ruby (Cher) is not present at the birth of Sophie, Donna is not present at the birth of Sophie’s child, and my own mum will not be present for any life-changing moments in my future. However, my auntie has already been around for a lot of them, her daughter is not only my cousin but also a very close friend and someone I look up to and I’m confident that, as previously mentioned, other women will be around. The birth sequence cuts between young Donna and present-day Sophie who sings “I’ve Been Waiting For You.” As Donna gives birth, she is supported by the help of an older woman she has befriended whilst in Greece named Sofia (Maria Vacratsis) and as Sophie sings, she subtlety acknowledges the presence of her unborn child with the support of Tanya and Rosie. By cutting between these scenes and playing “I’ve Been Waiting For You,” the film brings together a group of women of different ages with different connections to one another. The song becomes not just about romantic love as originally written by ABBA, or the love between a mother and child as a few lyric changes suggest, but about the love between family, friends and anyone who takes the time to care for one another, especially women.
Donna does return to the film during the baptism of Sophie’s baby, as a figment of Sophie’s imagination. In a way that echoes the significance of “Slipping Through My Fingers” in the original film, Donna appears to guide Sophie through another meaningful event. This time, she sings “My Love My Life” as she watches Sophie enter a new stage of life. The two sing together before Donna leaves the church, with Sophie again surrounded by the support of her other family members and friends. Whereas this scene didn’t move me as much as others during my first viewing at the cinema, when recently curled up in front of the film on DVD at home, I found myself attempting to muffle tears. The sequence again cuts between present day-Sophie and Donna in 1979, taking the same steps with their baby through the same church and in both time periods, Tanya and Rosie are present. This is what struck me the most during my DVD viewing. Either Tanya and Rosie have decided to stay in Greece for a prolonged length of time to further support Sophie, or they have travelled out again to be with her. They are no longer just friends of Donna who Sophie happens to be close to; they are now, first and foremost, Sophie’s friends. There are a lot of women my mum knew through our local community who I only got to know properly when she fell ill, after she passed away, and who I now continue to visit and spend time with just for myself. We may discuss my mum at times but overall, we have our own friendship based on our own experiences. This is what I imagine to be developing between Sophie, Tanya, and Rosie, especially as the presence of Donna says her goodbyes to her daughter.
At first glance, it is the three men in the Mamma Mia films whose relationships with Sophie are the most important to her beyond her mother. However, to me their roles are primarily comedic. I definitely enjoy them, and Bill (Stellan Starsgard) and Harry (Colin Firth) in the Titanic pose on a party boat whilst singing “Dancing Queen” is one of the great cinematic highlights of my year (seriously). But I couldn’t care less about what Donna or Sophie think about any of them. Even in the 1979 scenes I found their appearances hilarious for one reason or another. This is most likely because, especially when compared to the first film, there’s a lot about the younger versions of the men that doesn’t quite make sense. There are audiences who have been frustrated by this and although I was disappointed to be denied a young punk rock Harry, for me such irregularities just added to the charm of the film. After all, my heartstrings are rarely tugged by writers whose main concern is that every detail of their characters’ timelines and costumes add up. What makes Mamma Mia and even more so its sequel stand out as now firm favourites to me, is the way they put women and their support of one another centre stage. Not only the support between mother and daughter, but between those who gather around you when the person you have learnt to lean on for comfort, whatever the reasons may be, can no longer be there. As much as I love forgetting all my responsibilities and dancing around my room to a purely feel good films, there is far more depth to the Mamma Mia films than a lot of people seem to give them credit for.