Film: The Big Picture: Like a motherless child

Orphans (18) Director: Peter Mullan Starring: Douglas Henshall, Gary Lewis 95 Minutes
Click to follow
The setting of Peter Mullan's stark Orphans is a city of dreadful night, a dark unwelcoming place of siren wails, drinkers' curses at closing time and the occasional voice of a young man vowing murderous revenge on another. Sodium lamps wink through the gloom as a storm begins to gather. Dostoevsky would have been at home in a place like this. Welcome to Glasgow.

It begins as a realistic story of four siblings and a funeral. Thomas Flynn (Gary Lewis) conducts the exequies over the coffin of his mother, while his two brothers Michael (Douglas Henshall) and John (Stephen McCole) and their sister Sheila (Rosemarie Stevenson) look on, numb and ashen- faced. It's as well to remember the reflective quiet of this opening - a family gathered in grief - because what follows is so fierce and raw and nakedly hysterical that the possibility of calm seems to have been lost forever.

Orphans risks jarring fluctuations of tone almost immediately. Even in this relatively straight scene of mourning we get an indication of Mullan's skewed (and very Scots) sense of humour. Thomas, the eldest and most pious of the family, suggests that they each cut a lock of hair from their head to put in their mother's coffin, so that she won't be alone in her journey to the other side. (The film, like the Flynns, is deeply bound up with Catholic ritual.) After the other three have performed this minor rite, the scissors are handed back to Thomas, who takes them to his own thinning scalp: that his snipping sounds more like a Stanley knife on a carpet gives the solemnity of the moment a brief but distinct wobble.

That same combination of funerary gravitas and mawkish embarrassment inadvertently sets the film's plot in motion. Thomas announces the death of his mother at their local pub and gets halfway through her favourite song before he breaks down in tears. Michael, enraged by the sniggers of a nearby drinker, pitches in with his fists. If you've ever seen a pub brawl, you'll know that it's nothing like the movies' version of a pub brawl, where everyone seems to have an awful lot of time and space to get their punches in. Mullan knows what a fight really looks like: a flurry of limbs and flailing curses that reaches maximum violence instantly and is over in about 10 seconds. In the ensuing confusion the family is separated, and the film splinters into parallel narratives of distress and disillusion beneath the canopy of a black Glaswegian night.

Mullan's subject is the soul-wrenching experience of bereavement, and he focuses on each of the four siblings to gauge its different (though no less intense) effects. Michael emerges from the pub with a stab wound in his gut, which so incenses John that he swears revenge for all to hear. "I'm gonnae kill Duncan," he shouts, like some street Macbeth. Sheila becomes so bored with Thomas's obsessive ministrations at the church - he's promised to stay overnight guarding his mother's body - that she heads for home, only to have her wheelchair get stuck on a cobbled street (she suffers from cerebral palsy). Her orphaned state calls for the sort of kindness which the film believes is still alive and well even in the rebarbative precincts of Glasgow.

Mullan's sensitivity to individual turmoil recalls something of Irvine Welsh's short stories. There's the same clenched aggressiveness to mask confusion and hurt, the same defensive humour and, naturally enough, the same querulous vernacular - "I'll hae naebody look down on me," growls a belligerent Chinese take-out driver just prior to spitting in the black bean sauce of a customer who refuses to tip. There is also Welsh's peculiar fascination with that strain of mad-bastard Scottishness, immortalised by Begbie in Trainspotting and revisited here in the shape of a grotesquely unpleasant pub landlord (Alex Norton) who regards the slightest demur as grounds for locking up customers in his cellar. When Michael, vampiric through loss of blood, manages to escape this prison, he is offered an opportunity to bash in the publican's head (heed) with a rock, a disquieting illustration of the film's sudden shifts from antic to feral.

Mullan, whose lead performance animated Ken Loach's My Name is Joe, proves himself a skilled director of actors. Henshall, in particular, comes through strongly as Michael; his face seems able to accommodate shock, rage and vulnerability all at once. The almost wordless exchange he has with his ex-wife in their old flat is the more affecting for its unexpectedness: the scene could so easily have been a domestic ding-dong. Not every decision Mullan makes is as well judged. The Catholic symbolism is clankingly overworked, from the smashing of a statue of the Virgin Mary to an ill-advised apocalyptic thunderbolt that's meant to shake Thomas from his pathetic reliance on ritual. I think Mullan could have given the guy a break here - the roof has already caved in on his world metaphorically; did it really have to cave in actually too? And I couldn't quite work out how Michael ended up floating down the Clyde on a workman's pallet; these forays into the surreal seem pointless in a film that's devoted itself so commendably to the real.

But let' s put this in perspective. For a debut feature (Mullan has previously written and directed three short films), Orphans is a solid, ambitious piece of work that addresses the loneliness of the bereaved with deep feeling and scabrous humour, mixing the two together to the point where one feels unsure if a sympathetic grimace or an outraged belly-laugh is the more appropriate response. This is serious, grown-up film-making that should make Ken Loach feel just a little less isolated.