Orphans: “Handles the ugly side of human nature, brilliantly”

Before I start this review, I think it’s important that I give a little background context. 1998’s Orphans came at a time when the British film industry was in love with Scotland, following the success of Danny Boyle’s Shallow Grave and, more importantly in terms of its cultural impact, Trainspotting.  However, this Celtic love affair proved to be something of a hindrance rather than a help to the feature-length debut of writer/director Peter Mullan. Here he is on Film Four’s initial decision not to distribute what went on to become a multi-award winning film;

“They just felt it wasn’t Trainspotting. They wanted a film that was going to make them rich, something hip and cool, and I was determined not to go down that road. Orphans was much bigger in Italy and France than it ever was in England – it was pretty big in Scotland and Ireland, I must confess. And in England, at that time, they had a real bee in their bonnet about the incomprehensible Glaswegian accent. By that time, I’d already been subtitled in America -they subtitled My Name is Joe and Orphans. But the films that they did distribute that year, we had bigger audiences than the three other films that they decide to support. But they didn’t have a clue how to do Orphans, and when it picked up all these awards, they got embarrassed and wanted it back. They sent me this apologetic letter and asked to distribute it, and I wrote back saying I’d rather burn in hell”

And here is Peter Mullan on discovering that Film Four destroyed over 30 minutes of unused footage from the film;

“The consequences of this revolting act of vandalism are enormous. They burned my film and I can’t get it back. I can’t begin to explain how that feels. I now lie somewhere between rage and grief, and not just me, but my producer, my cast, my crew. All that talent, all that effort set alight like so much rubbish. It doesn’t make any sense and it’s disheartening when Film Four say it was a systems error. They’re saying it was an accident, that someone pushed the wrong button. But an accident to me is when someone falls over and spills coffee on a reel of film; these guys destroyed 730 reels, and that would take days”

In the interests of fair balance, here’s Film Four on Peter Mullan’s anger;

“We’ve been really apologetic, but then Peter goes and uses the press to attack us. He just likes to have a fight”

Wow. I always thought Film Four were the good guys. Turns out they can be complete and utter ignorant dicks too. I should have known though. Rewind back to the tail end of the last century and I was intrigued by a piece on the film I read in some magazine or other, but the film never seemed to hit the cinemas around here. The image of Gary Lewis carrying his mother’s coffin on his back has stayed with me ever since, but it wasn’t until 2017, almost a full twenty years since Orphans was originally released, that I finally got to see Mullan’s movie. In the three years that have since passed, I have watched it about five times. It’s safe to say that it has become one of my all-time favourite films. A whirlwind of a movie, Orphans is a real rare and powerful rough diamond that explores the nature of grief, masculinity,  rivalries and loyalties that come to the fore when a Glaswegian family is torn asunder by a bereavement.

… wonderfully atmospheric,

and so darkly grand, that

it is at times reminiscent

of Scorsese…

Orphans is about a family of three brothers and their disabled sister who meet for a private farewell ceremony to their deceased mother on the eve of her funeral. Unfortunately, their personal wake down the pub gets highly emotional and culminates in shocking violence. But this is just the first event in a series of frightening, distressing and hilarious incidents that the titular orphans will come to face in their own personal long dark night of the soul. A night in which a violent and destructive storm ripping through the city of Glasgow proves to be the very least of their worries.

Gary Lewis stars as the eldest sibling Thomas; an overly dutiful would-be martyr of a man who believes utterly in the crippling societal convention known as ‘The Done Thing’. For the pompous Thomas, bereavement is something to be marked in an earnestly respectful manner; with grief being something that has its own expectations and traditions that must be followed to the letter. With their mother now gone and their own father long dead, Thomas takes it upon himself to serve as the head of the family and there’s a quiet fanaticism to be observed in his actions. For Thomas, one suspects that the dead are much better than the living. The dead cannot let you down. They remain fixed in a memory of your own choosing, their blemishes gone. The same cannot be said of course, for his brothers and sister who he clearly feels let him down for not having the same kind of respect or sense of duty that he possesses for his mother’s memory.

Douglas Henshall stars as Michael, the second eldest in the Flynn family. It is Michael whose recklessness begins to throw events of course when, taking offence at someone laughing at Thomas’ tears during a karaoke tribute to their mother, starts a fight which results in him getting stabbed. Now, in any normal circumstances, you would expect a stabbing victim to attend hospital immediately. But Orphans is a film made up of circumstances that are far from normal. Mullan’s film embraces Scotland’s long-held love of the absurd, a cynical and caustic appreciation of the ridiculousness of a hard, working-class reality. To that end, Michael finds himself with a mission; he must survive until morning when he plans to pass his wound off as an industrial accident to claim compensation. His odyssey, as he stalks the streets visibly decaying and ends up in the strangest and most intimidating of pub lock-ins (featuring standout cameos from Alex Norton as Glasgow’s most fierce and misanthropic landlord and Still Game‘s Maureen Carr) arguably provides the film with the more blackly comic aspects of the humour.

Stephen McCole is the youngest brother John who, like many a youth, seeks a purpose in life. When he discovers that Michael has been stabbed by local thug DD Duncan (Malcolm Shields), he elects to channel the grief that he has been struggling with into a sense of grievance against Duncan and so, like many a youth, he chooses the wrong purpose. Teaming up with a loose cannon cousin and takeaway delivery driver called Tanga (Paul Flynn), the pair attempt to secure a gun in order to exact their revenge. What’s remarkable about this strand is that it goes from outright hilarity (there’s a wanking/cum gag in here far, far funnier than the more infamous one from There’s Something About Mary) to the extreme and most chillingly dramatic. McCole absolutely shines in his first film role, providing a credible and compelling screen presence that took him all the way to America for Wes Anderson’s Rushmore.

Lastly, disabled actress Rosemarie Stevenson stars as Sheila, the boys’ sister. A young woman with cerebral palsy, she is understandably bored by Thomas’ po-faced insistence that they should spend the night at the chapel, keeping their late mother company, and is forced to head home by herself instead. When her motorised wheelchair breaks down, she finds herself vulnerable and at the mercy of strangers and effectively ‘adopted’ by a bunch of children in what Mullan rightly claims echoes the kind of peculiarity usually found in a Fellini or De Sica movie. It’s worth pointing out that Stevenson had never acted before (or indeed since) and was discovered by Mullan in the community theatre his brother Larry works at. Unlike most films, Orphans casts a disabled performer in a way that is wholly natural; It’s a real performance for a real story by a real person with cerebral palsy. But neither her nor her disability are the main subject of the film, and therefore it isn’t in the least bit reliant on a star turn. At the time of the film’s release one Guardian interviewer discussed the casting of Stevenson with Mullan, contrasting it to the kind of showy Oscar bait of a non-disabled actor such as Tom Cruise; “Cruise, I liked him in the vampire thing”, Mullan surprisingly remarked, adding “But with someone of that stature, they would bring an agenda, and that is ‘Love me'”. There’s nothing so sympathetic or cloying to be found in Orphans, as Sheila’s storyline is both eccentric and amusing. When it does hit you with something emotionally hard, it does so unexpectedly and with significant impact.

Being an actor himself, Mullan teases out some truly wonderful performance from his quartet of leads and it’s some of the finest work that each of them has ever committed to film. Orphans is the kind of film that explores real emotion in the absolute raw (though granted the black comedy and melodrama will inevitably make it feel full-on and in a sense stylised) so it relies on real performance that are not at all self-conscious. Gary Lewis, who walks a fine line between extremely irritating and utterly pathetic, is perhaps the best example of that here, but I have a particular fondness for Douglas Henshall, whose natural gentleness works well to signify that the swaggering Glaswegian machismo that places the families night into a tailspin is something that his heart isn’t really in, it’s just that it’s the type of toxic masculinity expected of such men.

Written as a result of his own mother’s death, it’s interesting to consider what aspects of Orphans is autobiographical. Mullan believes the reactions of each of the Flynns to their mother’s death represents how he genuinely felt and behaved to some extent, but it’s interesting to delve deeper and consider – given that he spent some time in a knife gang as a teenager before mending his ways and going to university (something he would later bring to the screen with his most recent movie, 2010’s Neds) – whether there’s more of him in the character of John than anyone else, given that John is bright and university-bound but compelled to take his revenge. Given that Mullan used the death of the matriarch here as a metaphor for the death of socialism in Scotland; how a nation became orphaned when what they believed in wholeheartedly was taken away from them with the rise of New Labour offering more of the same, it’s perhaps John’s story that explores this metaphor the best, given that it one filled with false purpose. Mullan handles the violence and the ugly side of human nature brilliantly here, as you would more or less expect. Indeed, the whole film is wonderfully atmospheric, and so darkly grand, that it is at times reminiscent of Scorsese, a filmmaker well known for exploring extreme emotions and religion with the downright strangeness of city (night)life and traditional, expected forms of male behaviour.

At times hilariously funny and worryingly dark, Orphans is a deeply impressive film. Film Four may have dismissed it as ‘not Trainspotting’ but it’s ironic then that Irvine Welsh proclaimed it ‘The best film I’ve seen in ma puff’ before it went on to win Best Film at the ’98 Venice Film Festival and over twenty other awards. It’s perhaps easy to see why it was so warmly received in Italy, given their religious traditions and a cultural devotion towards the matriarchy that stems from the Madonna herself, but it was a spectacular own goal from Film Four to presume this would not find a significant audience. I am really pleased to see that that audience now has the opportunity to grow thanks to this (long overdue) Blu-ray from Indicator who have really delivered with a lavish package worthy of the film itself. Extras include the recent hour-long BBC Scotland documentary Orphans Reunited which sees Mullan and his cast reminiscing about the making of the movie, along with Mullan’s short films, including the thematically similar Fridge which, as Gary Lewis says in Orphans Reunited, possesses the same sense of horrible events with no welcome intervention in sight.


Mark Cunliffe

Mark's first experience at the cinema was watching the 1982 Cannon and Ball vehicle The Boys In Blue. Despite this ignoble start, he has nurtured a love of film and television ever since. He is a critical essayist for Arrow Films and his work appears in the DVD/Blu-ray releases of Stormy Monday, Day of the Jackal, Jake Speed, Children of Men and the Alec Guinness movie The Prisoner. He has also appeared on the Talking Pictures podcast and is currently contributing to a book about 1980s TV, film and pop culture.

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