Why there’s more to Scottish cinema than dour miserablism
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If you associate Scottish cinema with monochrome tales featuring alcohol-sodden fathers, battered mothers and children in short trousers struggling stoically for a bite of a cold sausage roll, you are, I’m afraid, not alone.
It’s a perception inspired by films such as those in the Bill Douglas Trilogy, a 1970s sequence based on the director’s upbringing in a mining village near Edinburgh. Magisterial but undeniably austere, it remains widely under-appreciated even in the director’s country of birth. So too is an expansive body of work by other directors, including Ken Loach, Lynne Ramsay and Peter Mullan, focusing on the darker aspects of Scottish urban life.
Of course, there is also a fine comedic strand to film-making in Scotland, running from Ealing Studios’ Whisky Galore to Bill Forsyth’s Gregory’s Girl and Loach’s last Scotland-set feature, The Angels’ Share. But the notion endures that film-making north of the border remains dominated by dour, proletarian, if not presbyterian, miserabilism.
So the UK-wide release this week of four features filmed in Scotland is welcome news for those of us who champion a broader view of the country’s cinema. The most upbeat and offbeat is Sunshine on Leith, which is constructed around songs by Leith-born twins Craig and Charlie Reid, aka The Proclaimers. An adaptation of the 2007 stage show of the same name, the film takes its title from the band’s second album and is directed by actor-turned-director Dexter Fletcher.
It follows two young soldiers returning from a troubled tour of Afghanistan to their native Edinburgh in pursuit of love and gainful employment. Relying heavily on some rather melodramatic ingredients – spurned wedding proposals, the consequences of furtive sexual encounters and near-death experiences – the narrative is designed to propel the cast to break out in song – 13 times – by my calculation, notably the title track, “Let’s Get Married” and “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)”. Anyone familiar with the band’s hits will have little difficulty in foreseeing the main plot points. It is slightly clunky, but if you encounter what is likely to be dubbed “The Proclaimers Musical” in the appropriate spirit, you are in for a heartwarming, if somewhat syrupy, experience.
There is nothing heartwarming or syrupy about Filth, a brash adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s scabrous 1998 third novel, directed by Jon S Baird. James McAvoy plays Edinburgh’s vilest cop (a corrupt misanthrope, misogynist, drug- and child-abuser and a Hearts fan to boot), a man literally haunted by events from his childhood, which are rendered cinematically by ghostlike apparitions. McAvoy’s performance is the film’s strong point.
Under the Skin, Jonathan Glazer’s adaptation of Michel Faber’s novel, follows an alien wreaking havoc on unsuspecting hitchhikers in the Scottish Highlands. Glazer first came to prominence with the critically acclaimed Sexy Beast in 2000, but this is his first film in almost 10 years. It divided critics at its Venice Film Festival premiere last month, garnering both one- and five-star reviews. Regardless of the critical response, the fact that Scarlett Johansson plays the extraterrestrial being seems likely to give the film popular appeal.
The last of the bunch, For Those in Peril, directed by former film student Paul Wright, deals with an accident at sea in a northeast fishing village. Fusing the social realist/documentary tradition with a variety of movie forms in its exploration of the aftermath of grief, this is one of the most assured debuts in Scottish film-making in recent years.
The release of four films set in Scotland within one week is unheard of. Yet the coming months will also witness the release of another musical, God Help the Girl, directed by Belle and Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch and filmed in Glasgow’s West End; Starred Up, a prison drama set in Northern Ireland, directed by Glasgow-based film-maker David McKenzie; and The Railway Man, an adaptation of Eric Lomax’s best-selling autobiography, which is set during the second world war, directed by Jonathan Teplitzky and starring Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman. Documentary film-making looks to be in good health too, with Edinburgh-based critic turned filmmaker Mark Cousins’ series of essays on the history of cinema being toasted currently on the international festival circuit.
Completists will also want to point out that Glasgow has been used as the backdrop for scenes in the recent Hollywood blockbusters World War Z and Cloud Atlas. And it was announced in July that production of the US fantasy drama series Outlander, based on Diana Gabaldon’s bestselling books, would be based in a new facility in Cumbernauld near Glasgow. The decision has fuelled the continuing debate over the desirability and feasibility of a bespoke Scottish film and television studio and how best to capitalise on new UK-wide film and television tax relief – one of the factors that attracted the producers of Outlander.
Earlier this year the Scottish government established a film studio delivery group, while Creative Scotland has ringfenced £1m towards the cost of establishing a studio; a vacant site adjacent to BBC Scotland’s headquarters on the River Clyde is a popular option. Balancing the demands of those involved in inward investment from the US and elsewhere and the needs of indigenous filmmakers will bring its own challenges. But filmmaking in Scotland appears to be in rude health, and a long, long way from being miserable.
‘Filth’ is released in Scotland on September 27; ‘Filth’, ‘Sunshine’, ‘Under the Skin’ and ‘For Those in Peril’ are released throughout the UK on October 4