Tag Archives: Scottish Cinema

Whisky Galore! (UK 1949)

George (Gordon Jackson) rescues The Biffer (Morland Graham) as the SS Cabinet Minister threatens to sink.

George (Gordon Jackson) rescues The Biffer (Morland Graham) as the SS Cabinet Minister threatens to sink.

BBC4 is such a blessing. Without it UK TV would be unbearable. This Christmas holiday the channel revived the traditional Yuletide TV schedule and gave us a run of Ealing films. The standout for me was Whisky Galore! which I hadn’t seen for many years. For anyone who doesn’t know the story, adapted from Compton Mackenzie’s novel, it is inspired by a real-life incident in which a ship went aground off the isle of Eriskay in the Outer Hebrides in 1941 – enabling islanders to ‘salvage’ much of its cargo of whisky. Mackenzie was himself the local Home Guard commander who turned a blind eye to the salvage operation. In the film, the locals of the mythical island of ‘Todday’ (a play on ‘toddy’?) are offered a similar opportunity during a period when their own supplies of whisky have run out. The only barrier to their enjoyment of the spoils is the local Home Guard commander, the English Captain Waggett played by Basil Radford, one half of the comic duo ‘Chalders and Caldicott’ with Naunton Wayne who appeared in several British films from 1938 onwards. Waggett brings in the ‘Excise men’ to hunt for the whisky hidden by the islanders. In doing so, he finds himself at odds with nearly all of the islanders.

Whisky Galore! is now considered a ‘classic comedy’. Initially it was only a moderate hit in English cinemas, playing better in Scotland but scoring an unexpected success in the US (as Tight Little Island) and in France where the title translated as ‘Whisky a GoGo’. Its release in 1949 alongside Passport to Pimlico and Kind Hearts and Coronets, helped to establish the idea of the ‘Ealing comedy’. As Philip Kemp points out in his book on director Sandy Mackendrick, (Lethal Innocence, Methuen 1991), once a film gets the ‘classic tag’ it is often difficult to step back and view it objectively. But let’s try anyway.

The film’s production context is crucial. It was made in 1948 when the UK attempted to keep Hollywood productions at bay through import tariffs as part of the struggle to achieve a balance of payments. Hollywood responded by embargoing British cinemas and UK producers attempted to fill the gap with increased production. Alexander Mackendrick was a young filmmaker at Ealing given his first directorial task on a location shoot (with all available studio space taken). Mackendrick was American-born but part of a Scottish family and he would go on to become one of the stars of Ealing and a director and later film teacher with an international reputation. His first film, not surprisingly was a little uneven and took twice as long as the budgeted 60 days to shoot on the remote (from London) island of Barra in the Outer Hebrides.

Watching the film now I’m struck by three immediate observations. First, there is a great deal of music, both in terms of score and the diegetic music used for local celebrations. Second, the location photography and the use of local non-professionals creates a very strong sense of place. Third, the narrative is actually pretty thin with the one central conflict and a couple of romantic sub-plots involving the two daughters of the island’s central entrepreneurial figure Macroon who runs the general store. This means that one of Ealing’s bigger stars, the husky-voiced Joan Greenwood is rather under-used. In fact all three central female roles (the other daughter and Waggett’s wife) are similarly under-used apart from a few one-liners. On the other hand, the film celebrates that Ealing trait of the small community working together and the film succeeds because of the sheer vitality of the camerawork and editing supporting the performances and the direction of the central narrative.

The interest for film scholars now, I think, lies in the film’s representation of certain ideas about ‘Scottishness’ and its relationship with similar films in terms of location and thematics. This dossier of materials compiled by Paul Cronin on the website ‘The Sticking Place’ provides many interesting starting points for debates. I’d like to pick up on what is sometimes referred to as the ‘kailyard’ tradition. This term can be traced back to at least the sixteenth century and it refers to the practice in rural areas whereby worker’s cottages would have attached a small plot of land to grow cabbages or other brassicas such as kale. In the 1890s the term was used to describe a certain kind of Scottish literature perceived as sentimental and nostalgic at a time when the Central Lowlands of Scotland (Glasgow and Edinburgh) had developed into major urban centres within the British Empire. In 1982 Colin Macarthur re-ignited the debate in his book about Scottish cinema, Scotch Reels, and the kailyard and ‘tartanry’ traditions. (‘Tartanry’ refers to the whole paraphernalia of the Victorian construction of Highlands culture.) It’s not for sassenachs like me to lecture Scots on national identity but I would point out that the kailyard has its equivalent in Ireland and the parts of England that I’m familiar with – workers’ cottages with a garden for the spuds and cabbage and a pen for a pig. The kailyard itself is authentic but the problem comes when it becomes the central focus of national identity and is disproportionately represented in comparison with the industrial tenement.

Whisky Galore! with its ‘Highlands and Islands’ setting is certainly rural and culturally Gaelic, but in fact the film makes relatively little of local culture apart from the narrative necessity of a whisky-fuelled celebration for the nuptials of Macroon’s daughters. What is important is that the central narrative hinges on the response by the locals to the actions of ‘outsiders’ – Waggett and the Excise Men. This sets up a romantic, idealised local community opposed to the rational, orthodox ideas of the English ‘colonial’ administrators. This rather than the kailyard seems to be the way in to the narrative and its ideological readings. Whisky Galore! is interesting in its relationship with what went before – Robert Flaherty’s documentary Man of Aran (1934) and Michael Powell’s The Edge of the World (1937) and I Know Where I’m Going (1945) – and what came after, including The Wicker Man (1973) and Local Hero (1982). These films (and several others) all celebrate the resistance of the ‘spirit’ of the Celtic fringe in resisting the intrusion of the ‘modern’ consumerist and regulated world into the organic but fantastic community of the Irish/Scottish Highlands and Islands.

One of the important decisions about the film’s script was to jettison the local religious conflict between two different island communities. In the novel, the wreck presents a salvage opportunity for both the Protestant (Calvinist) community of a ‘Northern Isle’ and the Catholic community of a Southern isle – the ship grounding on the dividing line in the Outer Hebrides. Ealing was terrified of the religious question and Mackendrick himself , although not a practising churchgoer, was a Protestant who said he did not understand the local Catholic community who seemed more Irish than Scottish. The result is that the film fails to convince when the Todday men, confirmed whisky drinkers, are unable to go to the wreck for 24 hours because they respect the Sabbath day (surely more of a Calvinist concept).

I enjoyed watching the film again. I was thrilled by the overall presentation and, like several other commentators, I was intrigued by the use of conventions relevant to 1948 – the noirish lighting of the salvage scenes and the war film references in which the excise men seem like the Gestapo searching houses for contraband whisky. But I would have liked more Joan Greenwood and more of the romance on those wonderful beaches – one day I’ll spend some June nights in the Hebrides!

Whisky Galore! is available on DVD and Blu-ray.

Filth (UK/Sweden/Germany/Belgium/US 2013)

Bladesy (Eddie Marsan) and Bruce (James McAvoy) on the Reeperbahn in Hamburg.

Bladesy (Eddie Marsan) and Bruce (James McAvoy) on the Reeperbahn in Hamburg.

This is a thoroughly entertaining film. It’s scabrous, perverse, surreal and offensive but nonetheless engaging. You need to know that is an adaptation of an Irvine Welsh novel and that therefore there will be sex, drugs, violence and various obscenities. Nothing is to be taken seriously. In strict Aristotelean terms this is possibly a tragedy rather than a comedy – but even then the ending is ambiguous.

I haven’t read the Welsh novel, but a glance at Wikipedia’s page suggests that the adaptation has changed several aspects of the narrative and this may be a problem for Welsh fans. Non-Brits should be aware that ‘Filth’ is a slang term for both the police (‘Polis’ in Scotland) and for pornography as well as more properly for ‘dirt’. The anti-hero of Filth is a Detective Sergeant in the Edinburgh CID, Bruce Robertson, played by James McAvoy. Robertson is put in charge of a murder case which he must solve in order to gain promotion – and win back his wife and child who have left him. But this is a policeman who has a serious mental health problem and who is declining rapidly under a regime of cocaine, alcohol and obsessive sex. He is haunted by a childhood memory that begins to haunt him after he becomes involved in a street incident. Ironically this incident offers Robertson a possibility of some form of redemption but he is already set on a path of destruction which will damage all his colleagues.

Director John S. Baird is not an innovator matching the Danny Boyle of Trainspotting and there is nothing too surprising in the aesthetics of the film, but those of Welsh’s ideas that have made it into the film adaptation added to the array of fine performances by a truly stellar cast carry the film through: Baird keeps the pace going at a fair lick. It’s perhaps invidious to pick out only one or two actors and many of Scotland’s finest are here including Gary Lewis, Kate Dickie, Shirley Henderson, Martin Compston and John Sessions. You can’t really go wrong with talent like that, especially when you throw in the English stars like Eddie Marsan, Jamie Bell, Jim Broadbent and Imogen Poots. But above all there is James McAvoy. I’ve previously questioned his casting in action roles but here he is unassailable, generating viciousness, self-loathing and gleeful pleasure in tricking his colleagues.

This production is a good case study for an investigation of ‘British independent’ production in 2013. Despite the the Irvine Welsh connection (or perhaps because of it – two other adaptations after Trainspotting failed) and the excellent cast, money was hard to come by and the producers appear to have been in that classic position of paying the actors out of their own pockets at one point. Once again Europe comes to the rescue with public funding from Film i väst in Sweden and various funds in Germany and Belgium. This explains the insertion of a trip to Hamburg in the narrative. It looks like an injection of cash from Trudie Styler’s company topped off a £3 million budget. That’s about twice the size of a ‘domestic’ UK movie budget these days but it does appear that the money has been well spent on cast and effects plus music. Clint Mansell is in charge of music and though I have no real knowledge of the tracks used in the film, I think that they work pretty well. I’m sure that eventually there will be a fan community analysis of the music.

After three weekends on release (the first only in Scotland) Lionsgate are probably fairly pleased with the box office returns, especially given the ’18’ certificate in the UK and distribution to certain overseas territories has been finalised. Censorship will keep it out of India and North America might be a problem but in Northern Europe I think it will play well. So far the UK total is just over $4 million with only a 25% drop in Week 3.

It’s been a good couple of weeks for Scottish films with Sunshine on Leith and the specialised offering For Those in Peril. Here’s the shortest of many official trailers for Filth:

The Angels' Share (UK/Fra/Bel/Italy 2012)

The four young offenders at a whisky auction in ‘The Angels’ Share’ (l-r: William Ruane, Jasmin Riggins, Paul Brannigan and Gary Maitland)

The ‘Sixteen Films’ crew have triumphed again, winning the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes and chalking up a significant box office success with The Angels’ Share. Sixteen Films as a company was formed by Ken Loach with producer Rebecca O’Brien and writer Paul Laverty to make Sweet Sixteen in 2002, but the partnership between Loach and Laverty goes back to Carla’s Song in 1996. Rebecca O’Brien missed out on that film but she was with Loach on earlier productions going back to Hidden Agenda in 1990. The West of Scotland and Scottish culture has featured in six of the groups films in all (My Name is Joe in 1998, Ae Fond Kiss in 2004 and Tickets in 2005 alongside Carla’s Song, Sweet Sixteen and the current film.) I think it’s fair to say that while the earlier films were all located in a recognisable urban Scotland and dealt with aspects of contemporary urban Scottish culture, none have ‘played’ so openly with ideas about Scottishness (without losing track of a strong central narrative).

‘The Angels’ Share’ refers to the small amount of liquid which is lost during the long process of maturation of whisky. With whisky as the centrepiece and four young working-class Glaswegians deposited in the Highlands, clad in kilts and carrying bottles of Irn-Bru, Loach and Laverty are clearly teasing us with thoughts of Whisky Galore and Trainspotting – as well as several films by Bill Forsyth including Local Hero and Comfort and Joy.  Some reviewers seem to think that comedy is something new for Loach. They’ve already forgotten Looking for Eric but, more importantly, they’ve forgotten that dramas set in believable working-class communities often feature comic characters and comic sequences. Ricky Tomlinson, later star of The Royle Family sitcom on TV, started making us laugh in Loach’s Riff-Raff (1991). In most cases, however, laughter in a Loach film co-exists with tears and pain, not least in a film like Kes (1969). And it still does in The Angels’ Share. The difference is perhaps that the obvious pain is contained within the first part of the narrative so that the second part becomes closer to a conventional ‘caper movie’ narrative – and the film’s resolution is quite different in feel to something like Kes. In fact it could almost be described as upbeat.

Outline (no spoilers)

The protagonist in The Angels’ Share is Robbie a young Glaswegian with a violent past, once more in court but this time offered a way out via 300 hours of ‘community payback’ because he is about to become a father and the birth of his child might bring him to his senses. (Robbie is played by Paul Brannigan, a very talented non-professional who obviously has great potential as an actor.) Robbie does try to change, keeping off drugs and trying to avoid fights. He makes good friends of three other young offenders on the programme and forms a bond with his supervisor (the wonderful Jon Henshaw) who is lonely and missing his own family. It is by chance that Robbie discovers that he has a natural talent, a ‘nose’ for whisky, and this will lead him into a seemingly crazy scheme to make money. But to do so, he needs the support of his three willing but not necessarily accomplished fellow miscreants.

Commentary

The film narrative is cleverly thought through and encapsulates several political observations that we might expect from Loach and Laverty. A 100 minute film perhaps does not have the length to allow the gradual development/transformation of a character like Robbie, who does seem to go from extremely violent youth spaced out on drugs to astute schemer and smooth operator rather quickly. On the other hand, because of its subject material, the film does have the possibility to engage with debates about Scottishness and representation as outlined above and this makes what is otherwise a seemingly ‘light’ comic tale into something else. In interviews, Loach and Laverty have spoken about the waste of young people’s talents and the disease of unemployment in the increasingly unequal society that is modern Tory Britain (and which the SNP in Edinburgh can only ameliorate but not radically alter). Here are young Glaswegians who have probably never tasted whisky, the national drink of Scotland, and who never visit the beautiful landscapes of their own country (from which their own families may well have been ‘cleared’ by rich landowners a hundred and fifty years or more ago). That same whisky (and the rivers and glens used for game hunting) is now valued by collectors who can pay extraordinary sums of money for something created by craft workers who don’t receive the remuneration that is their due. In this analysis, stealing the angels’ share seems a just venture if the proceeds are recycled in the Scottish economy.

One of the most important debates in Scottish film culture focuses on the representation of what is termed ‘tartanry’ – the romantic attachment of a Highland past that is commonly found in Hollywood’s celebration of Braveheart or Rob Roy. In fact, much of the mythology is a creation of romantic novelists and Victorian gentry – and it has little meaning for the Scottish working-class of the central lowlands, whose culture has been derived from mining and heavy industry. Whisky has an ambiguous position in this context – ironically, I read a magazine article on the boom in the Scottish whisky industry only a few days before seeing the film. Unfortunately a new distillery in the highlands will only create around 150 jobs – whereas the closure of factories and shipyards loses thousands. For readers outside the UK, it’s worth pointing out that Irn-Bru, bottles of which play a key role in the narrative are iconic in Scotland as the brand is claimed to be one of the few local products to match the popularity of Coke and Pepsi.

The Angels’ Share was released in the UK and Ireland by the Canadian mainstream distributor e-One. They have followed the usual practice on Loach’s films of a limited specialised cinema release starting with 73 screens. After four weeks the film is still going strong, passing $2 million. It opens this week in France and Belgium where Loach is usually guaranteed a bigger audience than in the UK. The biggest box office winner from Sixteen Films has so far been the Palme d’Or winner, The Wind That Shakes the Barley (boosted by a massive Irish box office response) but The Angels’ Share might top it.

I enjoyed the film very much but I probably need to see it again. There have been the usual silly certification problems about the way that working-class Glaswegian youths use profanities – often as words of endearment as much as hostility but fortunately the film got the ’15’ Certificate it needed. I should warn anyone who isn’t familiar with Loach-Laverty that some of the early scenes are disturbing (and emotional) before the caper elements take over but what follows will I think attract a new audience as well as satisfying existing fans. I’m intrigued as to how an American release will deal with the profanities in the subtitles which will surely happen for that market. Here is the trailer to whet your appetite (it gives away more of the plot than I have done, so be warned):