An event movie sold as much on its behind-the-scenes technical challenges as its story and genre, 1917 uses invisibly stitched long takes to convey the experiential fluidity of an overnight mission in World War I France, wherein two soldiers must hand deliver a message to the British front line to call off an offensive that will play into a German ambush. Mike is suspicious of films that market their filmmaking; José dislikes the work of director Sam Mendes.
So it’s with some relief that 1917 really rather impresses us. It’s a beautiful film, evocative of both the human cost of war and pastoral serenity of the landscape in which it takes place. Its symbolism, something José derides as overly simple and obvious in Mendes’ work, here functions quite well (if similarly unsubtly); its supporting cast of British and Irish stars is used well, Mark Strong and Richard Madden in particular shining during their brief scenes. And we consider the film’s similarities to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, a similarly expensive war epic about avoiding disaster, rather than boasting of success.
Sunshine on Leith is all ‘rah-rah Scotland’, tartanry, and views of Edinburgh so pretty they wouldn’t be out of place on shortbread tins. It’s got men being ‘macho’ in a ‘trying-too-hard’ kind of way, rather like Gene Kelly in Brigadoon, but with military accoutrements and beer to add to the posturing. It’s also got communal singing in pubs; and Scottish dancing in social clubs and inside the National Gallery of Scotland; and outside of it, on Princess Street by Waverley Station; in fact it’s got quite good singing and quite bad dancing from beginning to end, punctuated by fistfights , melodrama and romance.
Whether you like the film or not will depend on how you feel about the music of The Proclaimers (meh for me) and on how well you tolerate melodrama (I generally love it). Peter Mullan is great as the father and he’s got a very moving solo singing ‘Oh Jean’ in a deep gruff voice. Jane Horrocks with her pinched face and high voice is less offensive than usual though the plot attributes all kinds of unreasonableness to her. Paul Brannigan, first seen by me inThe Angel’s Share and already something of a symbol of Scottishness, has a nice cameo as a former squaddie who’s now a paraplegic and whose sole purpose in the film is to act as a ‘There but for the grace of God…’ figure to the rest of the boys. The film has a very appealing young cast who can sing (but it’s those songs). They can’t dance , even though the film calls on them to do so quite often, but they move well and a good flash mob hides a multitude of sins.
There’s none of the visual expressiveness one expects of musicals .Yet the feeling of communal utopia is laid on thick and shamelessly, though not without charm. There’s bound to be lots written on it, maybe just as much as there was on Gregory’s Girl or Trainspotting. The current Scottish films (and this includes Filth) aren’t as good but the politics of the moment and what these films express about them are perhaps more interesting. What problems is ‘Sunshine on Leith’ providing imaginary resolutions to? Well, Scottish Independence seems to figure centrally if not overtly. The film seems to be saying that you can go out for adventure but home is best, even if you work in a call centre. England is visualized as a lovely girl of Asian descent who gets together with strong and proud Scotland. But though he would walk 500 miles, and he would walk 500 more, the door he’s planning to fall on is high up, by Leith, near Edinburgh Castle and not too far from the Highlands, and according to Sunshine on Leith, the best, and certainly the prettiest, of all possible worlds.
In spite of the corn of it all, the patriotism, and some degree of …perhaps not ineptitude…more like a lack flair and imagination, it’s nice to see a British musical. I don’t remember ever seeing a Scottish one. And you do leave the cinema humming, even if what you’re humming is rather clod-hoppy and crude.