The Scoop: PG 2013, directed by Dexter Fletcher and starring Jane Horrocks, Peter Mullan and Jason Flemyng.
Tagline: When it happens… there’s nothing like it.
Summary Capsule: Two soldiers and two nurses fall in and out of love singing Proclaimers tunes.
Louise’s Rating: 3.5 out of 5 things you only know if you’re Scottish. Like, really Scottish, as in, Scotland has been your legal home at some point.
Louise’s Review: I’ve always loved musicals, and Sunshine on Leith is pretty likeable. For a jukebox musical it’s very good, which I attribute to the fact that the band in question – The Proclaimers – have thirty-years-worth of intelligent, political, romantic, angry, humorous songs to bring to the table. Best known for their anthem 500 Miles (I’m Gonna Be), a song about lifelong love expressed through populist Scottish realism, they have released about eight albums. Their music tracks their progression from angry young men dreaming about girls to grumpy middle-aged men worrying about wives. They are an opinionated band, and not just about romance. No, Proclaimers tunes express through the medium of twin-based folk-rock all that British life encompasses, from railing against Thatcher in the 80s to rolling their eyes at the BNP in the noughties, always enjoying a drink and a dance, and taking in birth, death, joy and sorrow along the way. The Proclaimers write as storytellers as much as musicians, and so their discography already sounded like songs from musicals anyway. Sunshine on Leith – named after the song that has had the greatest legacy in the band’s hometown – was a foregone conclusion.
The story revolves around three couples in Leith and Edinburgh. Rab and Jean are about to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary when their son Davy and his best friend Ally return from serving in Afghanistan. Ally is eager to rekindle a relationship with Davy’s sister Liz, a nurse, and together they decide to set up single Davy with Liz’s English colleague Yvonne. For a while everything seems rosy, but at the anniversary party everything hits the fan: Rab has discovered he has a daughter from an affair decades ago, and now Jean finds out too; Ally proposes to footloose Liz in public and is turned down; Yvonne and Davy are too cautious of being hurt for their own good and take sides over their friends’ argument. Can the Proclaimers pull the heartstrings back together for a feelgood ending? Of course they can. We’ll need some forgiveness, some compromise and some acceptance, but rest assured our characters finish happy enough and with no lasting damage done.
The beginning is very intense, and the ending is exuberant and enjoyable. However, the middle of the film is rather empty. A basic storyline this implausibly sunny and sappy needs some serious mitigating factors if it’s not to render the whole experience cringeworthy, tiresome, unoriginal and otherwise worthless. Fortunately, we have the music, the dancing, the scenery, one or two funny lines and a few shades of grey to keep us entertained and interested.
I’ve already praised the music of the Proclaimers, as performed by the Proclaimers. Fortunately for fans, the arrangements, staging and vocalizations used here really show the tunes off. The singing by the four young folks – Ally, Davy, Liz and Yvonne – is very good. The songs do arise seemingly naturally from the situations the characters find themselves in, and the dance sequences seem likewise organic. The characters dance in pubs and at parties, and the there’s a wonderful, joyful, crowd-sourced element to those scenes. The extras are all ages, shapes and subcultures, which emphasize the setting of the story in a real community. That in turn reinforces the no-nonsense storytelling from the lyrics.
My criticism of the musical aspect is that not enough of individual songs are used. The songs are what make it special, and in my opinion, sometimes the first verse and chorus is not enough. I thought that the older actors were rather disappointing in their singing roles, and Jane Horrocks in particular just pouted her way through as Jean, and her Scottish accent came across as completely false.
Edinburgh is a special city to me. It was my dad’s childhood home, so I have some family members still in residence. I myself was lucky enough to live there for three months for an internship. That being the case, I was thrilled to see this beautiful, distinctive town starring in its very own movie. Edinburgh has never looked so good… possibly because quite a lot of it was recognizably Glasgow! There were a few howlers – Edinburgh Castle appears to have moved to the port of Leith, and Jean works in Kelvingrove Art Gallery (ahem, in Glasgow) – but on the whole the location work and scenery were delightful. There were a few swooping helicopter shots over the Castle, Calton Hill and Holyrood Park that quite frankly stuck two tartan-clad fingers up to London and made it look shabby and dull. If nothing else, Edinburgh has never gone so long without rain. If you went by this film, it’s never cold, wet, windy or dirty!
Shades of grey, then. The army aspect of the film is tastefully handled. Davy and Ally have returned from Afghanistan, and although they are basically well-adjusted guys, there is a shadow of what they have seen and done hanging over them. Someone in their little group (unit? platoon?) has died and another has lost their legs to a roadside bomb, and they are troubled by this to a greater and lesser degree. It’s never really resolved to my satisfaction, but it does add something, I think. Rab’s old affair is also rather ambiguously painted. Jean feels betrayed when she learns about it – no matter when it happened, he broke his marriage vows, and their relationship rests on the premise of fidelity. He argues that his subsequent years of faithfulness mean that it should not be that big a deal, but we don’t know if he really believes that himself. We don’t know what this mysterious woman was like, how he knew her, or why he did what he did. We don’t know if she has always lived in his imagination, or whether he had never thought of her again until the secret daughter popped her head up. I want to learn more. Finally, this film features Jason Flemyng. I am always glad to see him. Probably a lovely man, he excels at the sleazy, creepy, quasi-villainous cowardly role. In Sunshine on Leith he has a supporting part as one of Jean’s colleagues, and a song to himself.
What the heck! Recommended.
- Director Dexter Fletcher shot to fame as a child star, appearing in Bugsy Malone as Babyface and Press Gang as Spike. I guess that’s why he elicited such a good performance from the little boy playing Ally’s nephew!
- Watch out for the Proclaimers themselves bumping into Ally and Davy in the first ten minutes.
- Jane Horrocks’ vocal stylings were famously heard in Little Voice, where she convincingly impersonated Judy Garland and Shirley Bassey.
- ‘Rab’ is the Scottish diminuative of ‘Robert.’
- Leith is Edinburgh’s port and has traditionally been a separate town. People from Leith would protest at the suggestion that Leith is part of Edinburgh, or that the two are one and the same.
- The song ‘Sunshine on Leith’ has been adopted by Edinburgh football (soccer) club Hibernian as their own. They sing it at most matches.
Rab: I’ve never been lucky with girls, I confess. Don’t know who to blame for my lack of success, but even with ones up the back of the bus, there was always a chance of a slap in the puss. But Jean, oh Jean, you let me get lucky with you.
If you enjoyed this movie, try:
- Mamma Mia!
- Little Voice
- On The Town