While Scotland on screen was once a heather-strewn land populated by kilted men called Angus and red-haired lassies called Flora, films like Local Hero, Gregory’s Girl and Trainspotting gave us a much more believable version of Scottish life and identity.
A new generation of homegrown film-making talent – bolstered by several English directors who came north – has helped to restore a vitality and often brutal realism to Scottish cinema.
Let’s just forget about Braveheart and Rob Roy for the time being.
Instead, here are eleven under-appreciated Scottish films you need to add to your DVD shelf, if you haven’t already.
That Sinking Feeling (1979)
Before he brought us the insta-classics that were Gregory’s Girl (1981) and Local Hero (1983), writer-director Bill Forsyth made That Sinking Feeling, a low-budget comedy focusing on the exploits of a group of Glasgow teens who decide to steal and sell a batch of sinks. With its inexperienced young actors (including Robert Buchanan as Ronnie and Gregory himself, John-Gordon Sinclair) giving the dialogue a naturalistic feel, the absurdity of the situations are always rooted in familiar environs of a murky, pre-Miles Better Glasgow.
Though the success of Gregory and Hero threatened to overwhelm the memory of That Sinking Feeling, the film was recently given am extras-laden Blu-ray release by the BFI, becoming a best-seller north of the border and proving there’s still a lot of love for Forsyth’s loveable rogues. [JM]
Shallow Grave (1994)
What would you do if your strange new flat-mate died suddenly, and you found a case full of cash next to their corpse? Edinburgh friends Ewan McGregor, Christopher Eccleston and Kerry Fox find themselves faced with that question – and what they decide to do next is as grimly amusing as it is gripping.
Perhaps Danny Boyle’s most underrated film, watching the three snotty young professionals descend into a web of greed, paranoia and ultimately (in one case) insanity is a real treat, with the added complications of a police investigation and two very nasty gangsters combining to create an exceptional domestic thriller. Intriguing, entertaining, and the pay-off is fantastic. [MB]
My Name Is Joe (1998)
A performance that announced the arrival of Peter Mullan as one of the finest actors of his generation (he won the Best Actor prize at Cannes), Ken Loach’s powerful tragi-comedy is well worth revisiting – or discovering. An early collaboration with his now-serial collaborator, screenwriter Paul Laverty, the film follows the unemployed, recovering alcoholic Joe Kavanagh as he tries to get his life back on the rails by acting as a mentor to the football team he coaches and trying to win the affections of health worker Sarah (Louise Goodall).
Like most Loach films, the story is tough, uncompromising, but whenever the tone is too despairing there’s a welcome element of humour, as a cinematic coping mechanism. As such it’s a humanistic and faithful story of post-industrial Glasgow life, the cinematic equivalent of a James Kelman or Janice Galloway novel. [NM]
1998 was a pretty big year for Peter Mullan. Not only was he heralded for his acting, he also directed his first full-length feature film, in the form of black comedy Orphans.
The award winning film (which was not distributed by Channel 4 as they felt it wouldn’t attract a large commercial audience) centres around the bleak tale of three brothers and their disabled sister who meet in Glasgow on the eve of their mother’s funeral. In an unfortunate series of events, the roof is blown off of the church where the funeral is due to be held and the siblings find themselves tested to the limits of forgiveness in a tough Glaswegian community. An impressive directorial debut from a stalwart of the darkest Scottish comedies. [SS]
Sweet Sixteen (2002)
Scotland has proved to be fertile ground for Ken Loach, and he returned north again in 2002 for Sweet Sixteen, the wonderfully-titled tale of a Greenock teenager who gets caught up in the west of Scotland gang world. Like La Haine before it, the film shows the reality of day-to-day existence for a group of disaffected youths in an area forgotten by mainstream society.
Loach once again proved his eye for breaking new talent by casting Martin Compston in the lead role as Liam, whose good intentions (he plans to buy a caravan for his Mum on her release from prison) are compromised by the lure of crime (he has to steal his step-father’s heroin to fund it). Again, there’s black comedy in the series of scams and minor crimes Liam and his pal Pinball get up to on their local estate, and a kind of bleak hope and youthful naivety in a world controlled by drugs. [NM]
Wedding Belles (2007)
Irvine Welsh’s first full length drama for TV, Wedding Belles has everything you would expect from the Trainspotting author. Teaming up with his regular screenwriting partner Dean Cavanagh, this Channel 4 film delivers more than its fair share of bestiality, incest, necrophilia, booze, violence and drugs. Lots of drugs.
Beauty salon owner Amanda prepares to marry her pilot fiancé, Joshua, but bridesmaids Kelly, Rhona and Shaz fear that he’s too good to be true. As expected, they’re right.
As Joshua’s dark secret is uncovered, the four friends embark on a journey of discovery, friendship and cold blooded murder. Each of the girls face different struggles including hair loss, drug addiction, a suicide attempt and an affair with a Catholic Priest. A hilarious and deeply disturbing foray into the lives of four Scottish friends, this under-appreciated Welsh creation amuses, shocks and is well worth your time. [SS]
Peter Mullan’s hard-hitting, personal coming of age tale set in 1970s Glasgow centres on young John McCill who, through his circumstances, various injustices and the pervasive influence of the city’s gang culture, gradually shifts from shy, intelligent little boy into a brutal thug of a teenager.
John’s downward spiral is tough to watch, but though the film doesn’t shy away from violence (and one astonishing rampage in particular will have your mouth agape), the wider emotional and social context gives it genuine raw power. It’s a potent and authentic portrait that simmers with feeling. [MB]
You’d be forgiven for never having heard of Donkeys, a film from director Morag McKinnon that languished on the shelf of its production company, received little publicity on its eventual release and ultimately won the Scottish BAFTA for best feature film. A “spiritual sequel” to 2006’s Red Road (part of Lars von Trier’s Advance Party project, it features many of the same cast in different roles), Donkeys stars James Cosmo and Brian Pettifer as Alfred and Brian, two men whose friendship is put to the test when the former’s daughter, Jackie (Kate Dickie) comes back into his life.
Carefully balancing the comedy and pathos, Colin McLaren’s script is pitch-perfect, a refreshing comedy-drama that doesn’t outstay its welcome at just 74 minutes and which deserves a place on your DVD shelf. [JM]
The Angels’ Share (2012)
A genuinely hilarious offering from Loach (and his third film in our list), The Angels’ Share is named after the amount of whisky that is lost to evaporation during the distilling process
New father Robbie has narrowly avoided a jail sentence and vows to turn over a new leaf, in the form of stealing from a distillery – all in the name of upward social mobility, of course. Alongside his band of unemployed young offenders, he embarks upon a farcical whisky heist that is a little reminiscent of Scottish classic Whisky Galore!
Not traditionally considered a comedy director, the film is one of Loach’s most upbeat and funniest offerings, without losing that gritty kitchen-sink realism he’s practically copyrighted. [SS]
Hinging on a stupendous performance from James McAvoy as an unhinged, scheming and substance-abusing copper, this riotous adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s novel leads us deep into the underbelly of DS Bruce Robertson’s seedy, reckless world.
As our anti-hero’s grip on sanity crumbles, the movie’s pitch-black humour gradually gives way to a surprisingly moving, tragic edge. Robertson is a fascinating character, and Filth is packed with invention, guilty laughs and surprises galore. [MB]
Under the Skin (2013)
Drawing plenty of baffled publicity over its bizarre premise, whereby Scarlett Johansson plays a mysterious alien driving around Glasgow in a van looking for men to ensnare, the most divisive movie of 2014 was also one of its most extraordinary.
Utterly disturbing at times (consider that beach scene) and nothing less than mesmerising throughout, its genius is to present banal, humdrum humanity through the eyes of an awed outsider, dealing with themes of lust, body-image and exploitation along the way. The kind of film that will be discussed and mulled over for decades to come, this loose adaptation of the Michel Faber novel from director Jonathan Glazer also had a fantastically creepy soundtrack by Mica Levi. [NM]