UK 1997

Reviewed by Edward Lawrenson


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

Glasgow, the present. On the eve of his mother's funeral, Thomas Flynn sings a tribute to her at a local pub, attended by his siblings Michael, John and Sheila. Duncan, a local youth, laughs and is attacked by Michael for his disrespect. In the ensuing fight, Michael is stabbed. John vows to kill Duncan. He tracks down his cousin Tanga and asks him to find him a gun. Thomas spends the night with his mother's coffin in the church. When he refuses to take his wheelchair-bound sister Sheila home, she leaves alone, but her wheelchair becomes stuck. Passer-by Carole comes to her aid and takes her to meet her family. Tanga procures a gun without bullets for John. They make a return visit to Mr Bell, one of the regular customers Tanga delivers carryout meals to. Tanga forces himself into the house and threatens to rape Bell's wife, but John makes him leave.

After dressing his wounds, Michael goes to a pub. When he mildly protests at the landlord Hanson's rudeness, Hanson locks him in the beer cellar with three other unruly customers. They break the door down, tie up Hanson and help themselves to drink. A storm rips off the church roof. The next morning Michael turns up at work and tries to pass off his stab wound as an industrial accident. Weakened by blood loss he falls in the River Clyde. Having acquired some bullets, John fires on Duncan but misses when he notices the baby he's carrying. They fight; John flees. Turning up at the makeshift funeral, John encounters an ailing Michael who collapses and is taken to hospital. Later, the family are reunited by their mother's grave.


Early on in Orphans, Thomas, the eldest of the four Flynn siblings, mounts the stage of his local pub to croon a mawkish love song in honour of his deceased mother. His drunken audience are torn between two responses: do they sit in silence out of respect for his grief or, like the grinning Duncan, openly deride Thomas' off-key and laughably bad performance? Watching Peter Mullan's debut film you recognise their dilemma. Mixing harrowing scenes of a family at grief with high comedy (the film contains moments of sustained knockabout which play like Rab C. Nesbit out-takes) Orphans doesn't so much tread a delicate line between these two modes as career wildly back and forth between them like a drunken mourner. Given this, Orphans makes for difficult viewing.

The bleak austerity of the opening scene, in which we're introduced through long takes to the Flynns ranged around their mother's open coffin, recalls the determinedly dour sensibility of Scottish director Bill Douglas. But Mullan audaciously follows this up with a Farrelly Brothers-type ejaculation gag and pokes fun at Thomas' piety. Such humour could so easily have trivialised his attempts to depict the painful business of grieving. Thomas' comment on deciding to carry his mother's coffin to her grave singlehandedly - "She ain't heavy, she's my mother" - is a clanger which perhaps betrays Mullan's experience as a sitcom writer. But then the easy laughs and flat irony offered here are trumped by the following image of Thomas, grimacing with pain, emotionally and physically crushed under the weight of the coffin. It's a fine balancing act that Mullan and his acrobatic actor Gary Lewis pull off, giving us a deft piece of physical comedy, but, like the bulk of Orphans, one that is underpinned by a palpable and very raw sense of loss.

An acclaimed short-film director accustomed to the form's visual economy, Mullan has an eye for quietly affecting, connotatively rich visuals. A wheelchair-bound Sheila stuck down an alley as threatening noises-off fill the soundtrack; a drunk, clad only in jeans and a T-shirt, blithely strolling down a storm-lashed street as braver souls take shelter: Mullan's image of Glasgow is built out of these bizarre nocturnal encounters and strangely resonant narrative and visual fragments. It's a little reminiscent of (but not quite as full blown as) the alternate reality painted by Alasdair Gray's landmark novel Lanark. However, when Mullan does veer into Gray's baroque territory, ripping the roof from the church where Thomas is spending the night, it feels like a hand-of-God intervention from a director out to grab attention.

Orphans' quietly assured surrealist slant places it in a Scottish tradition diametrically opposed to the hard-boiled realism of such writers as William McIlvanney and Peter McDougall. Indeed, that tradition's insistently masculine bias - and the lasting stereotype of the Glasgow hardman it has perpetuated - is slyly subverted throughout Orphans. Just as the film's tone feels fractured, so the surface sheen of quiet sufferance, of manly endurance which the three brothers set great store by also cracks spectacularly. Most obviously, John's attempt to play the tough guy comes to nothing when his obdurate vow to shoot Duncan is let down, first by inadequate equipment (he has a gun, but no bullets), second by compassion. But the traditional and rigidly male roles his two other brothers have set themselves also prove elusive: elder brother Thomas' attempt to play the patriarch ends up alienating everyone; and Michael's plan to be a breadwinner for his estranged family consists of a botched attempt to win compensation for a faked industrial accident.

Mullan is best known for his lead role in Ken Loach's My Name Is Joe. Unsurprisingly, the powerful and sensitive performance he gave there finds echoes in the work of his cast, particularly Douglas Henshall as Michael and a quietly touching turn from first-time actor Rosemarie Stevenson as Sheila. But Mullan is more than an actors' director. When, wearing workers' overalls soaked in his own blood, Michael falls into the river where he works, the camera follows him as he floats serenely past a deindustrialised Clyde. It's an image of male vulnerability, but it also plays like an oblique elegy to the shipyards that once stood there. In an instant, the film reverberates with the passion and anger of Loach's far more politicised movie. It's a measure of Mullan's success (and confidence) that even by the end of his rough and ambitious film, he's still not ready to give up on surprising us.


Frances Higson
Peter Mullan
Director of Photography
Grant Scott Cameron
Colin Monie
Campbell Gordon
Craig Armstrong
┬ęChannel Four Television Corporation
Production Companies
Channel Four Films presents in association with The Scottish Arts Council National Lottery Fund and The Glasgow Film Fund an Antoine Green Bridge production
For The Glasgow Film Fund and Channel 4
Development funded by The Scottish Film Production Fund
Executive Producer
Paddy Higson
Production Co-ordinator
Gillian Berrie
Production Manager
Location Manager
John Booth
Assistant Directors
Mark Goddard
Guy Heeley
Mike Queen
2nd Unit:
Ted Mitchell
Neil Smith
Script Supervisor
Janis Watt
Casting Director
Doreen Jones
Rostrum Camera
Malcolm Paris
Camera Operator
2nd Unit:
Oliver Cheeseman
Steadicam Operator
John Ward
Visual/Model Effects
Roy Field
Matte/Scene Artist
Cliff Culley
Model Cameraman
Neil Culley
Model Construction
Steve Corduroy
Optical Printer
Dick Dimbleby
Special Effects
Stuart Brisdon
Mark Haddenham
Mike Tilley
Colin Tilley
Nick Cooper
Art Director
Frances Connell
Storyboard Artist
Alan Reid
Costume Designer
Lynn Aitken
Wardrobe Supervisor
Margie Fortune
Make-up Designer
Anastasia Shirley
Title Artwork
Blue Peach
Mick Lennie
The Scottish BT Ensemble
Music Supervisor
Sandy Dworniak
Music Programmer
Richard T. Norris
Music Engineer
Paul Hulme
"Ye Can Come and See the Baby" by Will Fyffe, performed by Hugh Ferris, Lex Keith; "The Air That I Breath" by Mike Hazlewood, Albert Hammond, performed by Gary Lewis; "Going Doon the Water" by Neil Grant, Andy Stewart, performed by Hugh Ferris, Lex Keith; "You Take the High Road" (trad), performed by Hugh Ferris, Lex Keith; "Bean-Bag (Fairground Music)" by Shandy and Dave
Solo Concert Extracts
"Marie's Wedding", "The Jobby Wheecha!!!", "The Crucifixion" by/performed by Billy Connolly
Sound Design
Sound Recordist
Peter Brill
Supervising Dubbing Editor
Hilary Wyatt
Dubbing Mixer
Pat Hayes
Dialogue Editor
Lorraine Keiller
Mike Prestwood Smith
Bronek Korda
Lionel Selwyn
Felicity Cotterell
Ted Swanscott
Religious Technical Adviser
Rev Vincent Perricone
Stunt Co-ordinator
Nick Powell
Bernard Shepherd
Douglas Henshall
Michael Flynn
Gary Lewis
Thomas Flynn
Stephen McCole
John Flynn
Rosemarie Stevenson
Sheila Flynn
Frank Gallagher
Alex Norton
Dave Anderson
Uncle Ian
Deirdre Davis
Alison, Carole's mum
Maureen Carr
Minnie, in basement
Laurie Ventry
Henry, in basement
Malcolm Shields
DD Duncan
Eric Barlow
Mr Bell
Jan Wilson
Sandra, woman in bar
Sheila Donald
Mrs Finch
Ann Swan
Rose Flynn, mother of family
Gilbert Martin
Lenny Mullan
Julian, bar manager
June Brogan
Paul Doonan
Lenny, Duncan's brother
Linda Cuthbert
Evelyn, waitress in bar
Lex Keith
Hugh Ferris
Joel Strachan
Neil, lad in toilet
Tam White
Alistair, taxi driver
Vanya Eadie
Maria, receptionist at Evettes
Dorothy Jane Stewart
Michael Mallon
Rab, cheeky boy in street
James Casey
Peachy, cheeky boy in street
Alan Gracie
James, cheeky boy in street
Jim Twaddale
Liam, bus driver
Frances Carrigan
Mrs Bell
Judith A. Williams
Amanda, baby-sitter
Michael Sharpe
David Flynn, Michael's son
Laura O'Donnell
Lee-Ann McCran
Anne Marie, paper-girl
Debbie Welsh
Melissa, paper-girl
Donna Chalmer
Bernadette, paper-girl
Sarah Hepburn
Louise, Carole's sister
Martha Leishman
Catherine Connell
Angela Flynn, Michael's daughter
John Commeford
Ed, Carole's dad
Stephen Docherty
Alastair, barman in pub
Louise Dunn
Moira, woman collecting
Luke Coulter
paper-boy, in pub
Steven Singleton
Seamus, in basement
Kate Brailsford
deaf boy's mum
Luka Kennedy
Fraser, deaf boy
Helen Devon
Jessica, woman in tube
Josie Aitken Sheridan
Duncan's baby
Seamus Ball
Father Fitzgerald
Robert Carr
Mr Litch, undertaker
Jenny Swan
Aunt Geraldine
Downtown Pictures
9,142 feet
101 minutes 35 seconds
Dolby digital
In Colour
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011