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Scotch on the Rocks

Move over Trainspotting, Orphans balances despair with heart

You've got to feel sorry for the Scottish Board of Tourism. First the Loch Ness monster is exposed as a fake, then the nation's film industry starts to pick up speed. Now normally a successful film industry would be great for a country's image, but in the case of Scotland, it seems counterproductive, since most of the films depict a country overrun with skinheaded thugs who address everyone as "fucking cunt" before drinking large amounts of beer and vowing to beat into a bloody pulp anyone who so much as looks at them cross-eyed. It's as if the United States were represented solely by the Quentin Tarantino oeuvre, minus the Hollywood glamour of Travolta, Thurman, et al.

The latest import from the land of the thistle is no different, but it does at least take the time to show us why we should give a damn. Orphans, written and directed by My Name Is Joe star Peter Mullan, features ample blood, profanity and pint-swilling to appease the Danny Boyle/Andrew MacDonald acolytes in the audience, but displays an underlying faith in humanity that Trainspotting and Shallow Grave never had.

When their mother dies of a heart attack, grieving siblings Thomas (Gary Lewis), Michael (Douglas Henshall, looking like Kenneth Branagh by way of Jeffrey Jones), John (Stephen McCole, previously turned into a fly in The Acid House) and cerebral-palsied Sheila (newcomer Rosemarie Stevens) all react in their own unique fashions.

Sometimes they feel like a motherless child: Douglas Henshall and Stephen McCole in Orphans.
Alan Wylie
Sometimes they feel like a motherless child: Douglas Henshall and Stephen McCole in Orphans.

With a funeral scheduled for the next day, Thomas, the eldest and most straitlaced (read: anal) makes a promise to his late mother to stay all night in the church and watch over her coffin. Before he can get to the church, however, he stops at a karaoke bar with the rest of his family, where he sings a teary-eyed song that causes many of the drunk patrons to laugh, and brothers Michael and John to start a fight with same. Before long, Michael is stabbed (not fatally), John is vowing revenge, and Thomas and Sheila are in the church, where Sheila does not want to be for the entire night, though her physical condition prohibits her from being left alone. When Sheila rebels by ramming her wheelchair into a statue of the Virgin Mary, shattering it on the floor, Thomas loses his cool and sends her home by herself.

How the characters make their way through the night to their mother's funeral provides the crux of the action: Sheila trying to get home in her wheelchair, John in search of revenge, Thomas determining to hold fast in the church no matter what, and Michael in a bizarre quest to make it to work so he can pretend the stab wound was sustained on the job and get workman's comp.

Grief lurks at every turn, causing the characters to react in a generally hostile and unpredictable fashion to their surroundings, which include plenty of the aforementioned drunken thugs with their profane terms of address, in addition to more unpredictable fare. Sheila finds herself adopted by a group of young girls in party hats who sing French nursery rhymes; John enlists the help of a thuggish, Billy Connolly-loving delivery man to obtain a gun, only to wind up an accessory to a surreal home invasion; and Michael, with his stab wound oozing conspicuously all the while, discovers a bar where the penalty for less than perfect behavior is to get locked in the storeroom for the rest of the night.

There's a good deal of humor to these proceedings, but never does it mock the grief of our principals, nor do the chuckles come at the expense of their humanity. Every punch, every drop of blood, is earned and taken seriously; these guys may be tough, but not indestructible, not by a long shot. When Michael suggests that a vulnerable foe needs to have his head smashed in with bricks, then be turned on his back so that he chokes on his own blood, the rest of the cast are suitably appalled, despite having been horribly victimized by the same foe. "But I'm not really the best person to ask right now," adds Michael, who then offers the alternate suggestion to simply take the man's wallet and "run like fuck."

Orphans is essentially in the tradition of such movies as After Hours and The Out-of-Towners, in which a beleaguered protagonist must navigate a city at night and against all obstacles make it to an appointment the next day. The twist here is that not only are there four protagonists (one of whom doesn't budge, and thus would seem to have no obstacles), but also that they choose the dark path through rain-soaked streets, driven by sorrow to confront something, anything, that they can take out their frustrations on rather than admit helplessness. Factor in an unexpectedly high level of dark humor, and the resulting film captures the perfect balance of hipness and despair, all without any gratuitous gunplay or smarmy pop-cultural references.

Curiously enough, it's the straitlaced brother, Thomas, who comes off the worst. He's on his best behavior the whole time, even going so far as to pathetically attempt to cement together the shattered statue, but he's so uptight that he won't break a promise even to help family members in need. Meanwhile, his two brothers, having behaved terribly and suffered for it, come off all the more heroic. Sheila has fewer obstacles in her way but is constantly fighting against her own physical inadequacies, never more so than when trying to use the toilet at a stranger's house. The moral, one supposes, is that going out into the world and suffering is still better than not trying at all.

For all the Scots-impaired out there, Orphans, like The Acid House, features English subtitles to clarify the thick accents of the actors. However, viewers should be warned that not all of the language is transcribed accurately: "get pissed" is left as is, despite meaning "get drunk" as opposed to "get mad," but "aye" is frequently translated as "all right," and "I need a fag" is written "I need a smoke." Fortunately for the audience, the faces of the actors require very little interpretation, and the easily offended should note that "fucking cunt" can be understood in virtually any accent.

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