Today: February 29, 2024

Orphans

Actor Peter Mullan’s 1998 feature debut as writer and director is a gritty, no holds barred Scottish drama mixing heartfelt agony and unexpected hilarity, resulting in a rich and powerful ensemble piece. This is a must see for any fans of British indie cinema.

Actor Peter Mullan’s 1998 feature debut as writer
and director is a gritty, no holds barred Scottish drama mixing heartfelt agony
and unexpected hilarity, resulting in a rich and powerful ensemble piece. This is a must see for any fans of
British indie cinema.

Recently bereaved of
their mother, four siblings (three brothers and a sister) embark on a sleepless
night of turmoil and anguish ahead of her funeral the next day. Gary
Lewis
plays Thomas, the oldest and most emotionally bottled up
brother. Thomas chooses to spend
the night alone in the local Church, keeping vigil by his mother’s body. Douglas
Henshall
is spellbinding as Michael, perhaps the most interestingly written
character in the script. After
suffering a stab wound defending Thomas’ honour in a pub brawl, he rejects
hospital treatment in favour of waiting for his next day of work, planning to
pretend that it was a work related injury and thereby claim compensation. The film is laced with many such
difficult to watch but extremely funny twists and turns, and although deeply
sympathetic to his character’s burdens, Mullan
was also clearly having a whale of a time bringing the dark and bracing humour
of his Scottish homeland to the screen.
Some of the passionate but boneheaded sweary dialogue is side-splitting.

Youngest brother John
channels his feelings into a misguided crusade for vengeance against his
brothers knife attacker. His
misadventures take him on a wild roller coaster of emotions, and Stephen McCole plays the part with
flair. The final sibling and only
sister is the handicapped Sheila (Rosemarie
Stevenson
), who suffers after being left in her older brother Thomas’
care. His devotion to his dead
mother trumps that for his live and very needy sister. Left to wander the dark streets alone
in her wheelchair, Sheila serves as a symbol for where the bereaved’s focus
should lie, but sadly rarely ever does.

At first the film’s
score (an insight into the early days of now successful composer Craig Armstrong) feels overly
melodramatic, but soon it’s appropriateness is made clear as it helps to soften
the contrast between the film’s bleak atmosphere, and the explosions of comedy
which appear left, right and centre.
So pitch black is the style and tone that visually the picture looks
like it’s been dipped in tar, and that coupled with Mullan’s emotive camera
work and direction is shatteringly effective.

Orphans paved the way
for Mullan to direct The Magdalene
Sisters
(2002) and Neds (2010),
and as far as career launchers go it’s a belter. Here’s hoping he’ll take the reins behind the camera for
many more films to come!

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