High School Musical for the older generation: Sunshine on Leith

sunshine+on+leithSUNSHINE on Leith, to quote a listener to BBC Radio 5 Live’s Mayo and Kermode’s Film Review, is a “High School Musical for middle-aged people”. Although true, there is a lot that can be taken from the cinematic rendition of the stage musical.

If you look at the dark past of gritty Scottish Drama in Edinburgh, in recent times you’ve had the adaptation of Ian Rankin’s Open Doors, Trainspotting directed by Danny Boyle starring Ewan McGregor and Robbie Carlyle, and the disgustingly behaved police officer depicted by James McAvoy in the even more recent adaptation of Irvine Welsh fiction in Filth.

If you don’t know The Proclaimers,I prescribe a trip to Murrayfield. After every Scotland Rugby International, their trademark song “500 miles” is sung to the rafters. After such a passionate rendition, it will be made abundantly clear to you how much a pair of Hibees have stolen the musical hearts and minds of a nation. They have been synonymous with the Scottish Music scene for the best part of the last 35 years. They even star in their own film, but whether you can call them quizzically looking at the lead characters as they walk out of a pub within five minutes of the film beginning starring in a topic up for debate.

The film begins in Afghanistan with the unceremonial blowing up a line of tanks out on patrol. If you’d seen the trailer beforehand you’d have known this was coming – that is not to say that it loses its shock value as a result – when it happened I uttered an expletive I will not repeat in print. The story continues as Ally and Davy, the leading men, come home walking and singing down the streets of the capital before meeting their families for the first time in 6 months. It is not all plain sailing. We learn quickly that in Jean (Jane Horrocks) and Rab’s marriage (Peter Mullan), everything is far from hunky dory. Rab slept with a woman less than a year after taking his vows, having a child he did not know about until he gets a letter from the women 25 years later, inviting him to her own funeral with a letter inside written years before but as yet unread by the pair of eyes it mattered to most. Convoluted I agree, but it works.

Entwine into the plot the budding romance of Jean and Rab’s daughter Liz (Freya Mavor) and Ally (Kevin Guthrie) and Liz’s role as matchmaker to set up Yvonne (Antonia Thomas) and Davy (George MacKay), and the young love quadrangle is complete. Ally mistakenly uses Rab and Jean’s Silver Wedding Anniversary Party to ask for Liz’s hand in marriage, which blows up in his face, leading to a fight in which Davy becomes involved as tempers flare. Considering it is set in Edinburgh there was more than one Glasgow Kiss in that sequence. In the tumult of violence Davy nearly, I emphasise nearly, swings for Yvonne as the red mist descends. Thus leading her to question the budding romance between the couple. But through the medium of The Proclaimers’ Discography everything turns out well for them in the end.

Further on in the story Liz, who is a young nurse, receives a job offer from a teaching hospital in Florida, and Ally returns to the front line as he has itchy feet the longer he stays at home. One half of the quadrangle turns out fine, as Davy takes the plunge and promises to follow Yvonne to shock horror probe, England. As far as a Scotsman is concerned I think many would rather be following Ally back to a warzone. Jokes aside there is a large amount of English-bashing in the film, as is to be expected from a brethren north of the border. Inter-city rivalry between the two main cities Edinburgh and Glasgow is common place that reassuringly plays on the positive side of Scottish gallows humour.

The film was humourous as it was serious, heart-warming as much as it was heart-breaking, but Dexter Fletcher as Director and Stephen Greenhorn who wrote the story have created something that goes against the grain as far as Scottish drama is concerned. Macbeth and all that. Paul Brannigan returns from his role in 2012’s Angel’s Share as Ronnie, who is made a double-amputee because of the roadside bomb in the opening scene. In the New Year he will star alongside Scarlett Johansson in Under The Skin. A long way from being picked out of a lineup in an open audition for Angel’s Share.

As with any film, it was not perfect. The Scottish accents were questionable… although thankfully not as ropey as Mel Gibson’s offering in 1995’s Braveheart. The storyline predictably offers subject matter that feeds into The Proclaimer’s Greatest Hits, such as “Letter from America” as Liz takes the plunge to go “across the pond”. The singing is undermined by Les Miserables last year, which used it’s vastly deeper pockets to ensure stars sang live rather than were lip synced in post-production. But the story is believable, and in a musical and the era of far-fetched CGI fuelled pictures, I’d take that every day of the week.

An aside to ‘Wee‘ John Spence who plays Brendan, Ally’s young primary school nephew. He provided the most honest lines and brought the innocent priorities of a small boy to stay at home with his impressive war hero uncle to life. It was made very clear to the audience that instead of going to school he would much rather play Xbox and play ‘fitba‘ in the park. Props to Kahleen Crawford and Nina Gold for such true-to-life casting. It reassures us that the story is believable and we aren’t being taken for fools. A Great British Film. This small island can do it, and when it’s done well, we can stand alongside the prolific American blockbusters. As I overheard one of the other members say as the credits rolled, “Well, that was something different”. It most certainly was.

Creative Scotland and The British Film Institute have worked in partnership to fund this great theatrical advert for a beautiful city. From the Royal Mile to The Scott Monument to The Fountain in Holyrood Place and The Scottish National Gallery, this advertises as well as makes you feel like you are in the city with the characters. It was somewhat strange to watch such a uplifting film about Auld Reekie. There wasn’t even a mention of Deacon Brodie.