Orphans (2000) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Deep voiced announcer, ending his documentary narration: "the movie industry of Scotland ... because the Scotch are not just about sticky tape". 

They don't play links golf or stroll through the blooming heather, either, but this Scottish film is an offbeat movie that had me in stitches - well, at least when I could understand it.

Of course, almost nobody has seen it and almost nobody ever will see it. It's a black comedy about how four heavily-accented, working class siblings cope with their mother's death. For the most part, it takes place in a single 24 hour period before her funeral, as the story follows first one, then another, of the four members of the family in Glasgow. I don't know enough about the Glaswegian working class to know if the portrayals are accurate, or to know if the satire is appropriate, but I sure found it to be funny. It reminds me of a Scottish version of a Monty Python skit, with all the characters acting as humorously exaggerated, but nonetheless recognizable stereotypes.

Now, I realize that most of you will not find a comedy about your mother's death to be a suitable moviegoing experience, and not many of you are willing to try to wade through the heavy Scots accents to appreciate the humor, and still others will be put off by the fact that the characters must use the word "cunt" about a hundred times (or more), but if you are the type of person who likes the occasional film which is very far from the beaten path, you may find this very amusing, and sometimes powerfully affecting. I'd rate it pretty close to four stars if we used that system, although by our system it is clearly a C+, a superlative niche film. 

Your barometer is Trainspotting. If you hated that, skip this. If you liked that Scottish stew of the grotesque, tragic, and humorous, salted with a mixture of nearly incomprehensible accents, this is a kinder, gentler version. This is to death as Trainspotting was to heroin addiction.

Some film critics opined that the film didn't know how to balance deep tragedy with slapstick comedy and gross-out humor, and that it ventured freely back and forth between credible reality and implausible events, in the manner of magic realism. Those are very valid points, but your reaction to these oxymoronic juxtapositions may differ from theirs, as mine did. I thought that the crazy humor made the grief deeper, and that the absurdity was very funny indeed. I guess that some of the unlikely events wouldn't happen in the real world at all, let alone compacted into one night, but I was still laughing when the thugs used the surly pub owner's arse as a dart board, or when the religious guy decided that the ripping off of the church's roof was a blessing from God - because he could blame the storm for the statue that he shattered. I guess God really does work in mysterious ways. Even I could relate to the kind of God who would destroy one of his churches to help one dumb, insignificant, sincere guy avoid embarrassment.

By the way, the film is subtitled in English, even though every word is performed in English. This may seem unconventional to you but, believe me, it's very sensible. After having done business and interviewed people around every corner of the world, I like to think I'm good with accents, but these people are hard to understand. Once, when I visited an American friend who lived in Glasgow, we ended using up her daughter as a translator. The 9 year old daughter could freely switch between Texas Twang English and Scottish Brogue English, so when we got lost, she'd ask some Scottish guy a question, and then tell us what he said! Thank heaven for kids and their facility with languages, because without her I'd probably still be wandering in the moors somewhere. If you move abroad, having young children is like owning your own subtitles.

By the way, I had to do this kind of translation once myself. When I was seconded to Shell Norway, I moderated a meeting between my company's owner, a good ol' Central Texas boy, and the CFO of Norske Skell, a brilliant Frenchman whose rapid-fire English was often difficult to follow. Dominique would say something in English, I'd repeat it for Tommy in English, then I'd repeat Tommy's English response in English. It was one of the strangest experiences I ever had. I was used to telling the Americans what was going on in German or Spanish or the Scandinavian languages, but that was the only time I ever had to translate English to English - in both cases simply speaking in my own natural speech, which both of them could understand without any problem!

OK, enough war stories. Back to the movie.

Director Peter Mullan is better known as an actor (he's in the equally offbeat Trainspotting), but he received significant acclaim for this film. He was nominated for Best Screenplay at the British Indy awards, the film won the top prize at the Paris Film Festival, and four awards at the Venice Film Festival. Surprisingly, Mullan hasn't directed anything since.

To put it in the terms of the characters, "I gagged my cuntin' head off" when the dull-witted and pious oldest brother, making an all-night vigil in the church while his brothers got shit-faced, first destroyed the statue of the Virgin Mary, and then seemed to have caused the destruction of the entire church. Well, there was a bad wind outside, and it ripped the roof of the church, and also ruined the statue - at least that's what he wants us to believe.

Meanwhile, one of his brothers got stabbed in a bar fight, and refused to get it treated properly, walking around bleeding like a pig all night, so he could go to work the next day and pretend it was an industrial accident! Of course, when he got to work, he passed out from the combination of alcohol and lost blood, and he ended up on top of a crate, floating through Glasgow Harbor.

The other brother, a hotheaded type, ended up on a road trip with a violent criminal, planning violence and mayhem.

I also thought the film was touching in a lot of ways. The author and these characters, like many people, use humor and alcohol to escape from grief. But the grief of a dead mother is not something they can run away from, so that sorrow pervades the movie and haunts the characters, even when they flee from it. Underlying the death of their mother is the fact that her death also strips away the only bond between the siblings, signaling the end of their family, and they sense that deep loss as well. 


A note on the c-word. In America, the word "cunt" is almost the last taboo. Even tough guys in tough company rarely use it. Guys who think nothing of saying "cocksucker" and "motherfucker" will rarely say "cunt". You almost never hear it in an American movie, certainly never on television or radio. You don't even see it in print very often.

On the other hand, the word doesn't have the same verboten character in parts of the Isles. Some working class guys use it all the time, as all parts of speech, just as working class guys in America use "fuck". Sometimes they even use it in affectionate terms - "he's a good cunt, that one". I don't know how many times I heard Reagan referred to as "that old cunt" back when I worked in Dublin, as in "Run the free world? That old cunt couldn't even run a pub. He'd be lucky to find the cuntin' pub, that cunt Reagan". And that was when The Great Communicator was president, long before the announcement that he had Alzheimer's Disease. I got the impression that the words "Reagan" and "cunt" were inseparable in the Dublin idiom, just as the words "big" and "galoot" are inseparable in American slang.

Can you have a medium galoot? I don't remember any Disney movie called "The Littlest Galoot". Nope, galoots only come in one size. There are no smalls or mediums, much like the drink selection in a fast food joint. 

DVD info from Amazon.

  • Widescreen anamorphic, 1.85:1

  • no significant features

So if you North Americans watch some of these Scottish and Irish movies about the working classes, you might hear a lot of talk that you aren't used to, and you just have to be aware that the word "cunt" just doesn't have the same visceral impact in other parts of the English-speaking world. Just think of it as an exact equivalent of the word  "fuck". A "cuntin' bloke" in Glasgow would be the same as a "fuckin' guy" in New Jersey, and a "dumb cunt" in Dublin is the same as a "dumb fuck" in the States. But here's a tip for you - don't use the word when referring to a woman. I don't know the precise rule, but I'm pretty sure it's a no-no. I never heard anyone in Scotland or Ireland refer to a woman as a cunt, so I'm pretty sure that usage is on the wrong side of the tracks, and I don't think you should tell an Irish guy that his mum is a good cunt, although it may be an acceptable, affectionate way to describe his dad!

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: two and a half stars. Ebert 2.5/4, Berardinelli 2.5/4

  • Rotten Tomatoes summary. 70% positive overall, 100% from the top critics.

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 6.7 
  • With their dollars ... it was a festival fave, but domestic gross was virtually non-existent. It grossed $49,000 in the USA.
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a C+. Terrific movie, but with very limited appeal.

Return to the Movie House home page