It’s been busy around these parts for days two and three of the Edinburgh International Film Festival (EIFF), with a number of films watched, some interviews carried out and much planning for the next week.
In amongst all this we’ve seen two five star films, one of which, Donkeys, has received virtually no publicity, while the second, Toy Story 3, has enough marketing budget behind it to restart the UK economy in one fell swoop. Because we loved them both so much we’re going to devote more space to them in the coming weeks, Donkeys in particular deserving of more time being spent on it.
In the meantime, here are a few more mini-reviews from the EIFF.
A debate has been taking place in Scotland over the last few years amongst those who have an interest in the nation’s comedy. Some argue that the output of Glasgow-biased BBC Scotland (it’s cheaper to film in the city than anywhere else, hence the majority of output is set there) has led to a one-size-fits-all style of comedy series, the only innovation being which part of the city the next series will be filmed.
Others would say that the appearance of some new faces in the past year or so proves that change is happening. So what if they’re still set in and around Glasgow and aimed at the same audience, at least the names in the end titles are different: the public does indeed want what the public gets.
When it comes to Scottish feature films, viewers are served an even more limited diet: it’s been 11 years since the last Bill Forsyth film, and nobody seems willing to fill his shoes anytime soon.
While Morag McKinnon’s comedy-drama, Donkeys, may be set in the same geographical location as many BBC Scotland series, this semi-sequel to 2006’s Red Road (some of the same actors return to play the same characters, with their back stories and situations altered) has more wit and emotion in its opening sixty seconds than many TV shows and films can muster during their full running time.
The plot – after years of ignoring his daughter, Jackie (Kate Dickie), James Cosmo’s Alfred wants to reconcile with her before he moves to Spain with his best friend (Brian Pettifer) – may sound routine, but supplied with a sublime script from Colin McLaren, the cast take it and run, barely stopping to catch breath.
From Dickie’s battle-scarred Jackie, trying to raise her daughter without a partner and unable to forgive her absent father, to next-door neighbour Stevie (Martin Compston), fresh out of jail and left to look after his dying mother while coming to terms with his own paternal issues, through to the imposing Cosmo himself, full of remorse for his past actions but still not quite ready to put all his cards on the table, everyone is pitch-perfect.
Humour may be integral to the story, but it never dilutes the drama. Instead, as Alfred attempts to infiltrate his daughter’s world, uncovering secrets along the way, the darker moments are played with a lightness of touch that don’t feel forced and recalls John Byrne at his best: these are real people, with real emotions.
The biggest tragedy of Donkeys, away from the script which has its own fair share, is that the film doesn’t yet have a distribution deal, meaning there’s little chance you’ll see it on the big screen any time soon. Sitting on a shelf for the last two years gathering dust, it seems that one of the most engaging pieces of cinema to have been made in Scotland in the last decade could be destined to remain in the vaults for a while to come.
Quite what can be done to reverse this is uncertain, but until more people are able to spend time in the company of Alfred, Jackie and family, be aware that you’re missing something of a minor classic. And that’s no laughing matter.â˜…â˜…â˜…â˜…â˜… (JM)
Donkeys is the spiritual and quasi-redacted follow-up to Red Road. It’s the second of the Advance Party films, which were widely covered around the time of Red Road’s release: the premise of these films being a Scots/Danish collaboration, creating different films around one set of characters. Since that time, very little has risen to the surface and the whole scheme seemed all-but forgotten.
Now, two years after principal photography ended, Donkeys arrives with little fanfare and scarcely a mention of Andrea Arnold’s work. That’s partly because Donkeys may share characters but it certainly doesn’t share a tone. Now we have a second to compare to the first, it becomes clear the Advance Party films are very much about diversity. Unless you were aware of link to Red Road, it’s just possible it might never cross your mind throughout the course of the film.
Morag McKinnon directs the tale of Alfred (James Cosmo), the father of Jackie (Kate Dickie) who seeks to make reparations with his family following a lifetime of let-downs before he succumbs to the illness he’s sure he has. In other hands, that would be a trumpet call for navel-gazing and breakdowns. Here, it’s handled deftly with just the right amounts of pathos and ribaldry, in about equal measure.
On a cursory level the earthy Glasgow setting and lead characters of a certain age (Cosmo, with fantastic sparring from Brian Pettifer) may look to be treading similar ground to something like Still Game, but it’s handled with far more wit and genuine warmth here. It’s a distinct display of proper gallows humour.
Performances are uniformly excellent from the grizzled Cosmo to Compston and to the almost sage-like 12 year old girl (which recalls Gregory’s Girl). The script absolutely shines with just enough barbed dialogue amongst the gentler moments. The pacing is perfect for the tale and the cinematography fantastically captures the spirit of the areas it depicts, with just enough arthouse edge to bring to mind that of Red Road.
There’s still a week to go, but this has a real chance of being the film of the Festival.
Emotional. Funny. Touching. Sad. Crude. Sensitive. This really does have it all. â˜…â˜…â˜…â˜…â˜… (RM)
Jackboots on Whitehall
What could be more fun than a WWII-set action film set in an alternative timeline where the Nazis defeated the British and have decided to rock up on English soil to lay claim to its green and pleasant land, starting with Buckingham Palace? How about making all your lead characters puppets and asking some of the UK’s top acting talent to voice them?
When everything goes pear-shaped at Dunkirk in June 1940, the Allies floundering on French shores and ending up at the mercy or the German hordes, it’s not long before Hitler (Alan Cumming) decides to send Geobbels (Tom Wilkinson), Goering (Richard Griffiths) and Himmler (Richard O’Brien) to Blighty to capture Churchill (Timothy Spall).
Unbeknownst to Hitler and Churchill, there’s still hope for the country in the shape of Chris (Ewan McGregor), a farm labourer with unusually large hands, who decides to take on the might of the Hun with a rag tag group of friends. Setting off for London, it’s not long before their journey takes them far away from rural England and up to the barren wasteland of Scotland¦
Those expecting (or fearing) a homage to 2004’s puppet-led Team America: World Police should be pleasantly surprised by Rory and Edward McHenry’s richly detailed depiction of a world where common sense has been replaced by absurdity and Hitler can be found wearing a floor-length dress. The figures aren’t exact replicas of historical characters, rather heightened versions which pass muster when compared to bigger budget animations such as the recent Fantastic Mr Fox.
Perhaps the biggest problem with Jackboots is that nothing is meant to be taken seriously: while it’s fine to laugh at the ridiculousness of events, titter at the odd puerile gag and strain to identify the star voices, the lack of emotion means there’s a hole at the film’s centre as big as anything caused by one of Hitler’s Panzers. Fun but ultimately forgettable. â˜…â˜…â˜…â˜…â˜… (JM)
Ross Maclean (RM)
Jonathan Melville (JM)