You’re in a church in Glasgow. Your father is dead, you have a fractious relationship with your siblings and you are cold. The roof is damaged. You’re also being directed by Peter Mullan, the man for whom the word ‘gritty’, when applied to film-making, was seemingly made for. You are the film Orphans and you, as the viewer, know before you begin watching exactly what you are in for – lots of swearing, lots of realism, and lots of emotional angst.
Peter Mullan went on to further mine the Gaelic psyche by directing The Magdalene Sisters and Neds, but it is in this – his debut feature – that we see his style and themes start to flower. Shot in the style of a fantastical drama, a surreal (in places) kitchen sink drama about how four newly orphaned but fully grown siblings will find their way in the harsh world of fights, curries and the pub without their dear old mum to look after them.
The joy is in the tiny drama. The film revolves not so much around the conceptual weight of the death of a parent, but the literal and physical problems that come from it. They seem to act as a signifier of larger problems to come – who stays with the body in the chapel overnight? What if there’s no disabled access? What if we all hate each other? Each character is so tied up with the little details that none of them ever seem to stop and realise that their mother is dead. Gone. They will never see her again.
The four children – Thomas (Gary Lewis), Michael (Douglas Henshall), John (Stephen McCole), and Sheila (Rosemarie Stevenson) lay on the human drama thick and fast. The impenetrable accents and speedy delivery mean that all but the most Scot-savvy of viewers will be left in the dark for a lot of the film, but the emotion that pours from the film is raw and pure. It’s a good film – a little film, but one that signifies bigger things.