Category Archives: Scottish

The Escapist (2001)

“You try to make sense of what he said, but there’s nothing there.”

The Escapist didn’t sound like the sort of film I am usually interested in, but I decided to watch it due to the fact that Gillies MacKinnon directs the film. His film Small Faces remains one of my favourite all-time Scottish films, and while The Escapist sounds like a fairly run-of-the-mill action/revenge tale, I knew that MacKinnon would deliver much more than that. I was not disappointed. Just ignore the cheesy cover and have some faith in MacKinnon.

The Escapist begins with young pilot Denis Hopkins (Jonny Lee Miller) flying through beautiful blue skies and entertaining his young, pregnant wife Valerie (Paloma Baeza), her sister Christine (Johdi May) and her husband with a daredevil trick. Denis and his wife live in a gorgeous coastal home overlooking the ocean. They have an enviable life: they are young, happily married, affluent and expecting their first child in a few weeks.

All this perfection is ripped apart by the eruption of a violent, senseless home invasion. Held hostage by three revolting criminals, Denis’s privileged life seems to piss the criminals off, and their focus shifts from what they can steal to goading Denis using his pregnant wife’s vulnerability. The break-in results in Valerie’s death and extended prison sentences for the killers.

After Valerie’s death, Denis is unable to adjust to his new life and instead he decides to seek revenge by getting himself incarcerated in order to get close enough to savage, psycho gang leader Ricky Barnes (Andy Serkis) who’s being held in a remote high security prison.

Denis finds out that getting arrested is no guarantee that he’ll be sent to the same prison as Barnes, but he also discovers that continual escape attempts places him on something labeled the “magic roundabout” as he cycles back into increasingly escape-proof prisons.

Along the way, he makes friends with Scottish cellmate Ron (Gary Lewis)–a man seasoned enough to recognize that there’s a story behind his cellmate’s obsessive quest to escape with the intention of allowing himself to be captured again.

Denis finds out the hard way that possessing a great deal of courage is not the same as becoming a man of violence, but he crosses his first ethical boundary when he exploits a sympathetic prison guard.

The Escapist is great, satisfying entertainment and Jonny Lee Miller pulls out all the stops when he confronts his nemesis, Barnes, a man who personifies evil and seems to take delight in the fact that he ruined Denis’s life and ‘turned’ him to violence. The film’s dramatic, unexpected conclusion wraps up the story with more than a slice of irony. Now excuse me while I go rewatch Escape From New York.

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Orphans (1997)

“Burying you Ma is a very killable offence.”

The dour, yet bitterly funny Scottish film Orphans follows the exploits of four siblings on the night before their mother’s funeral. When the film begins, the adult siblings gather around their mother’s coffin to say goodbye, and then they go out together to a local club for the evening. This is when things begin to unravel. While Thomas (Gary Lewis), the eldest. starts his all-night vigil at the church, Michael (Douglas Henshall) flirts with death, John (Stephen McCole) sets off on a quest for revenge with a crazed Chinese food delivery driver, and wheelchair bound Sheila (Rosemarie Stevenson) strikes out alone on the streets of Glasgow.

Orphans is both grim and darkly funny. The four siblings embark on various paths of self-destruction once their mother–the glue holding them together–dies. We only see one flashback of the mother, as a young woman, with the children, so we’ve no idea of the nature of the relationship between the mother and her children. Instead we see the children, now adults, struggling to survive in a world without their mother. And it seems questionable whether some of them will even survive the night. The hours before the mother’s funeral are crucial and ultimately maturing for the ‘orphans.’ At times hilarious (the scenes in the pub) and at times depressing, if you enjoy Scottish cinema, then you’ll want to catch this one from director Peter Mullan.

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Young Adam (2003)

Joe Taylor (Ewan McGregor) lives and works on a coal barge with married couple Ella (Tilda Swinton) and Les Gault (Peter Mullan). This life is an odd mixture. At times, life is extremely claustrophobic–Joe has to sit and eat meals with the Gaults as they bicker, and he’s also privy to details of the intimate side of their married life. The Gaults aren’t a particularly pleasant couple. Ella is dour, joyless, and has an extremely unattractive personality. She barks orders at Les, and he meekly submits. It’s as though no pleasure or enjoyment is allowed on the barge–it’s all work and no play as far as Ella is concerned. At other times, life on the lochs is free, independent, and quite beautiful, and the film’s cinematography emphasizes this through scenes of the barge negotiating the loch system of Scotland between Glasgow and Edinburgh.

One day, Joe and Les fish the body of a young woman from the water. She’s only partially clothed, and there’s a great deal of speculation in the newspapers about her death. Through a series of flashbacks, it is revealed that Joe knew the drowned woman–she was, in fact, an old girlfriend, but Joe doesn’t tell a soul. This seems peculiar, but Joe, it seems has his reasons for keeping quiet…

Visually, the film is stunning, and excellent performances further propel this film into high watchability. Tilda Swinton is a fine actress who always selects her roles very carefully. Each new role allows us to see Swinton in a different light, and indeed the role of Ella Gault does show an alternate side of Swinton. She’s just as unglamorous as possible here, and yet she’s the only woman on a boat with two men…. Close ups of Ella’s slightly flaring nostrils indicate there’s a passionate woman somewhere beneath that apron.

The plot is slightly problematic. Just as the film seems to lead us one way, we’re pulled another. At first the emphasis is on the three characters stuffed into the barge. Joe seems to be a fairly harmless young man–a bit of a bookworm, but as the story continues, it becomes evident that Joe is capable of some rather unpleasant things. His reactions are not predictable, and this is due to the fact that emotion is largely absent. Like many films and books (Morvern Callar & Trainspotting, for example) from Scotland recently, Young Adam has a bleakness and moral ambiguity that may not appeal to all viewers.

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Small Faces (1996)

“We really don’t see much of the law down here.”

The Scottish coming-of-age film Small Faces is the story of the three teenage Maclean brothers growing up in the slums of Glasgow in the late 60s. Quiet, gentle Alan attends Art College. Wayward brother Bobby is a member of the Glen Gang and right hand man to the gang leader–Charlie Sloan. The film’s protagonist is the youngest brother, 13-year-old Lex. While Alan is the ‘good’ brother, and Bobby is the ‘bad’ brother, Lex has yet to define himself. Lex shares Alan’s artistic talent, but he also suffers from being the youngest brother of the three and longs to be viewed as a man. There is a certain amount of subtle pressure from the Glen Gang for Lex to join their ranks–a certain cloak of safety apparently comes from the idea that you have powerful–or in this case–violent friends. Bobby has declared himself by joining the Glen, and Alan steers clear of gang involvement while trying to protect and shield Lex at the same time.

When Lex commits a foolish, thoughtless act, the Glens and their serious territorial rival–the Tongs–both begin paying attention to the Maclean Brothers. Interest is heightened when it becomes common knowledge that Alan has a relationship with Joanne–a 17-year-old girl who manages to be friends with both Charlie Sloan and Malky Johnson (the leader of the Tongs).

Most of the film deals with the idea that a child–Lex–is forced to make serious, irreversible decisions–which will impact the rest of his life. Some of the best, and most touching scenes in the film occur when Lex is placed in typical childhood situations. For example, in one scene, Lex, who is hiding out in a local cinema–terrified that he will be murdered–wakes up to find himself in the middle of a children’s matinee. He is surrounded by happy, joyful children, and Lex responds and echoes their behaviour with ecstatic relief. It is poignant scenes like this that remind us that Lex is still–at heart–a child who has been robbed of his childhood innocence by poverty and violence. One of the most interesting relationships in the films occurs between Lex and Gorbals–a fellow 13-year-old who is affiliated (rather against his will) to the Tongs. Neither Lex nor Gorbals want to get involved with the gangs, but they are forced into contact by their situations. When they meet, the boys stare at each other for a few moments as they recognize that they are both hostages to proximity. From director Gillies MacKinnon

If you enjoy Small Faces, I also recommend Fresh (director Boaz Yakin).

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Red Road (2006)

“At least she was loved. Some people don’t get that.”

The excellent Scottish thriller Red Road from director Andrea Arnold is set in modern Glasgow. The protagonist is a solitary, self-contained woman named Jackie (Kate Dickie). She works as a CCTV operator in the ‘City Eye’ centre where she stares at dozens of cameras positioned throughout Glasgow. While ostensibly the cameras are there to monitor (and stop) crime, they also allow the watcher (Jackie, in this case) to slip into the lives of other people. From her surveillance position, she watches the routines of those in her assigned surveillance district. For example, one man routinely walks his dog, and over time Jackie becomes aware that the dog is elderly and ill. While a workmate and fellow watcher wants to call in the police when the dog defecates on the pavement, Jackie realizes that there’s a reason for the dog’s incontinence.

The first few scenes establish that Jackie leads a sterile life. While during her shift, she intently watches the hub of Glasgow life, when it comes to her own life it’s a bare bones existence. She has bi-weekly emotionless, bleak encounters with a fellow employee in the front seat of his van. The vacuity of these awkward encounters (which are short and efficient) strikes the viewer. Jackie seems not to notice that much is missing from these robotic moments, and her lover (and I use the term loosely here), is too self-focused to notice her lack of involvement.

Over time, it becomes apparent that Jackie’s sex life is emblematic of her entire existence. There’s something horribly wrong in her life, but we don’t know what it is. The film begins to take on a sinister aspect as it continues. One night, Jackie is watching a couple copulate in a deserted lot, and she identifies the man in the grainy picture. Recently released from prison, Clyde (Tony Curran) is responsible for ruining Jackie’s life. She becomes obsessed with him, and using her position as a surveillance operator, she begins tracking his movements, following him to the slums of Red Road.

This hypnotic film with its emphasis on the unemotional, bleak isolation of the voyeur, is fascinating. The use of camera, grainy surveillance shots, and close up of the eyes of those who watch all serve to bolster the film’s mood. To give away any more of this plot would be a crime. Suffice to say this is one of the most suspenseful films I’ve seen in a long, long time.

When the film concluded, the dimensions of this clever plot sink in. Jackie relies on the evidence before her–stuff she see with her eyes, and we see and interpret through her eyes. As an audience we engage in surveillance too. We make judgments, just as she makes judgments. But are those judgments always accurate? Does Jackie jump to the wrong conclusions? Do we?

red-roadred-road1is part of the Advance Party project–one of three films (all with different directors but featuring the same actors). Can’t wait to see the others….

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Pure (2002)

“You can’t fight this battle for her.”

Scottish director Gillies MacKinnon has a gift when it comes to telling a story through a child’s point of view. In “Pure”, MacKinnon doesn’t sink into the lure of sentimentality, and neither does he make his ten-year old protagonist, Paul (Harry Eden), perfect. Set in East London, “Pure” portrays Paul’s bleak life with unflinching, and painful honesty. Paul lives with his widowed mother, Mel (Molly Parker) who’s a heroin addict, and a younger brother, Lee (Vinnie Hunter). Mel spends her days in a drug-induced stupor, and if she comes out of her haze, there’s sleazy supplier Lenny (David Wenham), her dead husband’s best friend, ready to ensure she never kicks her habit. Lenny not only supplies to the poverty-stricken neighbourhood of single mothers, but he also keeps the girls addicted while they earn money as prostitutes.

This is an ugly, desperate life with no hope of escape, and Paul’s face reflects his cares. Some shots show him as prematurely aged, and he carries the sort of knowledge that no ten-year-old should be exposed to. Paul is caught in a net–with his mother a heroin addict, and Lenny keeping her that way. Paul is fiercely protective of his mother, and while he realizes on some level, that he’s out of his depth, there’s no one he can turn to for help. His options for outside help are the police–and he views them as the enemy–or his grandparents. Unfortunately, his grandmother dislikes Mel and blames her for her son’s death.

Paul befriends a waitress named Louise (Keira Knightley), but fails to realize that she’s hopelessly trapped too. Paul, in the throes of a crush, sees her as perfect and removed from the taint of their surroundings. MacKinnon captures the craftiness of the addict to perfection, and the scenes of Paul and his mother are painful–yet vividly true to life. Incredibly fine acting from Molly Parker and Harry Eden make “Pure” a memorable film. If you enjoy “Pure” I also recommend another film by MacKinnon, “Small Faces”, and an American film that deals with the same theme “Fresh” directed by Boaz Yakin.

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A Fond Kiss (2004)

 “We’re not from Pakistan.”

Any film from director Ken Loach film deserves a look, and A Fond Kiss, although lighter fare than this director’s usual films, is not an exception. Based on the rocky romance between an Irish Catholic music teacher and a Scottish-Pakistani man, the film takes a good hard look at the difficulties faced when contemplating a relationship that crosses cultures and ethnicity.

Casim Khan (Atta Yaqub) is a young, modern Glaswegian. A DJ by night, he hopes to open his own club. He’s also a good loyal son, and lives at home with his parents and two sisters. His father emigrated from Pakistan decades early under conditions of extreme hardship, and now the family owns a small corner shop. An arranged marriage is planned for Casim and he’s due to be married in a matter of weeks to his cousin, Jasmine, when he meets and falls for Roisin Hanlon (Eva Birthistle), a teacher at his younger sister’s school.

The film does an excellent job of showing the clash between Casim and Roisin’s cultural expectations, and their failure to understand the pressures each bears when societal forces align against them. Casim straddles both Scottish and Pakistani cultures, and he successfully manages to negotiate each by leading a double life. The duality of Casim’s existence is depicted particularly well in a scene at a club. Casim’s western self is enjoying the evening at the club when he sees his sister trying to enjoy herself there too. Casim’s muslim standards kick into high gear and he orders his sister home. In one of the best scenes on the film, Casim and Roisin discuss religion. There are so many points of agreement, and yet they are also theologically poles apart. Each finds some aspects of the other’s religion absurd, and somehow this scene captures the difficulties this couple will face if they should decide to make the relationship more permanent.

In the hands of many directors A Fond Kiss would be standard predictable boy-meets-girl fare. But under Loach’s direction, the plot is elevated and thought provoking. As a result, this is a blisteringly honest film, and while Yaqub’s performance is a little weak, Eva Birthistle is wonderful. Flashes of humour soften the possibly harsh interpretation of Casim’s parents’ expectations adding a lighter element in what could so easily been an impossibly depressing film. Ken Loach is one of the most interesting directors working today, and if you enjoy this I also recommend Bread and Roses. In English and Punjabi with subtitles.

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