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    The exceptionally brutal Scottish film "Orphans" ultimately does pay off with the portrait of a tormented family.


    While watching "Orphans," a Scottish film from 1997, I was reminded of a sketch by Derek & Clive, the fictitious — and excessively profane — duo conceived by comedians Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. The sketch is one in which Derek delights in telling Clive (or vice-versa) how he kicked the crap out of a bloke who had the unmitigated temerity to say "Hello" to him one day.

    Written and directed by: Peter Mullan.
    Cast: Douglas Henshall, Gary Lewis, Stephen McCole, Frank Gallagher, Alex Norton, Rosemarie Stevenson.
    Cinematography: Grant Cameron.
    in English.

    Related links: Official site | All of David N. Butterworth's reviews at Rotten Tomatoes
    "Orphans" often times parallels that conceit, with one of its leads on such a violent bender that you flinch every time a minor character approaches. The crude language in the film, too, is as constant and difficult to stomach as it is in a Derek & Clive skit: "Orphans" features working-class stiffs from Glasgow, after all, and few niceties are spared when it comes to telling it like it is.

    John, the "college boy" who flips out when a taxi soaks him to the skin, flips out when a bus almost runs him over, and flips out when a bunch of scruffy teenagers call him rude names, is bent on revenge Big Time. Why? To avenge the recent stabbing of his big brother, Michael. And how come Michael took a shiv to the ribs? Well, he started a brawl in a pub when some of the locals started laughing at his big brother, Thomas. And why were they laughing at Thomas? Because he burst into tears while singing a Hollies song he'd dedicated to their recently-departed mother.

    "Orphans" often — and always — comes back to their recently departed mother. In the film's opening scene, the three lads and their paraplegic sister Sheila bestow their respects by cutting off locks of their hair and laying them in their mother's coffin. In the film's final act, Thomas places flowers on her grave before trotting off with his sibs to grab a curry. Sandwiched between these, the insurmountable horror of finding themselves motherless, alone in this lonely Scottish city, on the eve of their mother's funeral, hits each grown family member and hits them hard.

    Thomas (Gary Lewis) insists on keeping vigil by his mother's side, even if it means ignoring everything about those left living. Michael (Douglas Henshall) finds escape in the bottle. John (Stephen McCole) looks to a psychotic friend for a gun and bullets — they share a torturous scene that recalls the rape in "A Clockwork Orange" without the Ludwig Van. And Sheila (Rosemarie Stevenson), tired of waiting by Thomas' side, heads home in her mechanized wheelchair only to encounter a cheerful girl with a smile and a party invite.

    Sheila's is about the only good fortune to be found on a night in which a gale-force wind tears the roof off the parish church.

    "Orphans" is the feature-directing debut of Peter Mullan. If that name sounds at all familiar it's because Mullan made a bit of a splash playing the title character in Ken Loach's 1998 drama "My Name is Joe." While "Orphans" avoids Loach's rabid political agenda, it does bear some gritty similarities to the British director's work — the pessimistic, working-class protagonists; the attention to detail afforded its characters; and above all, the accents of its cast of unknowns, accents thick enough to require subtitles. To be fair, the dialects aren't as heavy as in Loach's "Riff-Raff," for example, but the on-screen translations add an appreciable level of comfort.

    There are moments of humor in this dark, disturbing "comedy," but they are few and far between. "Orphans" may be brutal in its unfailing depiction of the pain of loss but it's also brutally honest; these are tortured, tormented souls who, for no other reason, just want their Mammy. And that's what makes sitting through the film worthwhile, even if the getting there isn't always easy.

    MARCH 16, 2000

    Reader comments on Orphans:

  • Funny and dark   from Alistair, Feb 4, 2001
  • Re: Funny and dark   from stephen mccole, May 20, 2006
  • orphans   from Peter Best, May 29, 2001
  • Re: orphans   from Fay Hannah, May 10, 2008
  • Awesome Film and Movie   from Lee von Preussen, Jul 1, 2004

  • Post a comment on "Orphans"