Orphans is the tale of a grieving family and how lost they feel after the death of their mother. It’s about the ups and downs of family units, functional or not, and the difficulties that come about when people have to assume different roles from the ones that they have known all their lives. An older brother can need looked after, someone has to be the head of the family and even the most vulnerable individual sometimes lashes out with a moment or two of angry rebellion.
Gary Lewis, Douglas Henshall, Stephen McCole and Rosemarie Stevenson are the siblings all dealing with various problems on the eve of their mother’s funeral. Michael (played by Lewis) is trying to stay strong, keep the family unit together and give his mother the sending off that she deserves. Michael (Henshall) has an outburst of violense that results in his wounding and spends the night dealing with anger and regret. John (McCole) is also full of anger and regret and channels his emotions into seeking revenge for the wounding of his brother. And poor Sheila (Stevenson) grows increasingly frustrated as she relies on others to help her with her disability and misses the care and safety of her mother. The night proves to be quite eventful and there’s a big storm coming.
The feature directorial debut from Peter Mullan, who also wrote the film, Orphans is a potent mix of pain, fear, love and pitch black humour. Perhaps striking a chord more with his fellow Scotsmen than anyone else, Mullan accurately shows how his people so often deal with the universal harsh blows that life so often delivers. Alcohol, violence, profanity and frustration all play a part but this isn’t a damning portrait of any particular group of people. There are also moments of innocence shown, moments of care and love and moments that show how different people can be about to strangle each other just before settling for a much-needed hug.
The acting is all excellent. Gary Lewis is superb, keeping a straight face and proud demeanour throughout despite being the subject of some ridicule at times. Douglas Henshall is equally superb, an angry young man trying to keep himself right when he could so easily go completely off the rails. A moment near the end with his character admitting all that he really wants in his life is both heartbreaking and amusing and this is as much due to Henshall, with his boyish charm and undercurrent of potentially explosive emotion, as it is due to the script and execution. Stephen McCole gives a great performance and Rosemarie Stevenson is also wonderful. In fact, nobody onscreen gives a bad performance.
Peter Mullan clearly has a talent for his work behind the camera, one that has grown with movies such as The Magdalene Sisters and Neds, but this shows some signs of a man still very much in the learning stage. It’s technically accomplished and there are many individual scenes but the tone veers from one extreme to the other on too many occasions and the darker moments tend to take things just a little bit too far when juxtaposed alongside surrounding scenes. Of course, a film can mix light and dark but Orphans just doesn’t do it quite as well as required. Mullan does well to mix in so many elements and maintain focus on the story strands as they weave around each other and come together in time for a satisfying conclusion but his touch just isn’t quite deft enough and he seems, understandably, most at ease when allowed to point the camera at a great performer acting his or her socks off.
Orphans is a very good movie and makes a lot of great observations but it also remains the flawed, first feature from a great actor who would go on to even better work on both sides of the camera.
The Blu-ray of Orphans looks and sounds nice enough, though it’s far from the perfectly polished job of movies with much more money behind them, but is lacking a number of decent features. A trailer and stingy photo gallery (about 8 photos) fail to impress, as does a lack of subtitles for anyone unable to decipher the Scottish dialect (though this wasn’t a problem for me, obviously). But the real treat is the inclusion of three early, short films by Peter Mullan. “Close” is a dark tale about a man cleaning up his home environment before the arrival of his new baby daughter, “Good Day For The Bad Guys” takes a twisted look at the world of panto and “Fridge” concerns some people trying to extract a small boy from the titular appliance. All three films feature Gary Lewis in some role and the first two also feature Mullan in the lead role. They’re very dark, but worthy, films and each one shows development by Mullan in the way he works with both the camera and coaxing the best performances from the great actors involved.
Orphans looks to be adopted on Blu-ray and DVD here in the UK on Monday 31st October.
DIRECTOR: PETER MULLAN
STARS: DOUGLAS HENSHALL, GARY LEWIS, STEPHEN MCCOLE, ROSEMARIE STEVENSON, ANN SWANN, GILBERT MARTIN, JAN WILSON, MALCOLM SHIELDS
RUNTIME: 101 MINS APPROX