Orphans Review

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A black comedy-drama unfolds as four Scottish siblings wait to bury their mum


After his blistering turn in Ken Loach's My Name Is Joe, Mullan moves to the other side of the lens, scripting and directing this triumphant first feature which recounts one long, darkly comic night of the soul as experienced by a clan about to bury their mother. What begins with the Catholic solemnity of a Terence Davies movie acquires a lopsided reality more akin to the work of Danny Boyle.

Eldest son Thomas (Lewis) gets the evening off to a bad start when his tribute song to the deceased sparks a brawl with a local thug that sees brother Michael (Henshall) being stabbed. In the aftermath of the fight, and against a gathering storm, each member of the family takes separate, almost allegorical, parts. Younger sibling John (McCole) seeks out for vengeance; the bleeding Michael drifts aimlessly hoping to pass off his wound as a work injury. Thomas, meanwhile, throws himself into religious ritual, more concerned with mourning the dead than caring for his cerebral palsied sister Sheila (Rosemarie Stevenson) who relies on strangers when her electric wheelchair conks out in an unlit backstreet.

Comic dramas rarely come blacker or more affecting than Mullan's and it is with a sureness befitting a seasoned veteran rather than a first timer that he is able to juxtapose the many incidental scenes of riotous hilarity and quiet pathos, never letting the gallows humour or the emotion run unchecked.

The uniformly excellent cast notwithstanding, what's also striking is the authenticity with which the director evokes the hues and sounds of the city; its expletive-strewn dialect and, as seen in a roadside knife fight of heart-pounding immediacy, its edgy air of danger. Grotesquely funny and desperately sad, a headbutt and a hymn, the film is something special.

Placed in a gritty-yet-surreal no-man's land somewhere between Quentin Tarantino and Ken Loach, the superbly-written result also benefits from a strong cast whose talents are equal to Mullanís award-winning own.