Orphans (review)

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A Pint of Bitter

The Scots have a dark, wry sense of humor, and perhaps only a Scottish filmmaker could have had both the audacity to attempt a black comedy about grief and the sensibility to pull it off. Best known as an actor for his award-winning performance in My Name Is Joe, Peter Mullan here he goes behind the camera in a wonderfully biting feature-film debut as writer/director. Orphans is as absurdly funny as it is heart-wrenchingly painful, and contains, in a story of apparently modest scope, some of the most poignantly real as well as some of the most bemusingly dreamy moments I think I’ve ever seen on film.
Set in working-class Glasgow, Orphans‘ simple story plays out mostly over the course of a single night that’s both literally and metaphorically stormy, as four adult siblings attempt, in their own inarticulate ways, to salve their devastating grief over their mother’s death. Their father having died years earlier, they now have only one another, but they are unable to even express amongst themselves the depth of their pain. Thomas (Gary Lewis), the oldest, shoulders familial responsibilities with such extreme devotion that he alienates the others — he plans to spend the night in the church where his mother’s funeral mass will be performed the next morning, praying next to her coffin. Michael (Douglas Henshall) and John (Stephen McCole: Rushmore) find their anguish manifesting itself violently — when Michael is stabbed in a pub brawl he initiated, John vows to kill his brother’s attacker, DD Duncan (Malcolm Shields). Sheila (Rosemarie Stevenson), wheelchair-bound with cerebral palsy, gets bored with Thomas’s piety and decides to head home from the church by herself, though she isn’t really able to look after herself.

“Things like this bring you together,” Michael assures his ex-wife that night, when she wonders how the Flynns are holding up, and he doesn’t even seem aware of the patent falseness of such a platitude. Mullan knows, though, and avoids the typical inanities with which the subject of death is usually treated. There’s no grief porn here, no lingering on sobbing faces or solemn nods from black-clad mourners whispering clichéd words of sympathy — there’s none of the uncomfortable witnessing of heart-rending pain that, when one is in the throes of such pain, one wishes would just go away.

Instead, Mullan uses little slices of ultra-real reality, a sense of hovering disaster, and touches of near fantasy to envelop us in the Flynns’ chaotic state of mind, which they all do share in spite of their very different ways of showing it. Michael stumbles through the night, slowly bleeding from the stab wound in his side, refusing to go to a hospital… and in his wanderings encounters a pubkeeper with unusual ideas for dealing with unruly patrons. Sheila’s motorized wheelchair breaks down on a dark, lonely sidewalk… and she is rescued by a fairy princess, or at least a little girl (Laura O’Donnell) in a pink, pointy hat and a familiar in the form of a shaggy dog. John, an ordinary college student, gets a taste of the gritty underside of Glasgow in his search for a gun to kill DD Duncan… and meets a child go-between used by an ammo supplier. An ecstatic new dad, a picture of his infant emblazoned on his t-shirt, meanders through the story, his happiness an affront to the Flynns’ misery and a reminder that life is continuing without them while they mourn.

Orphans is grief from the inside out: the sudden sense of realizing the world is not permanent, the heightened awareness of the life all around you and the rage that it can all go on oblivious to your suffering, the conflicting emotions that inspire both laughter and tears at the ridiculousness of it all. When we see, at Mrs. Flynn’s funeral, the lengths to which Thomas is willing to go in his self-appointed role as the dutiful son… Well, I don’t think I’ve ever giggled and wept at the same time like that at a movie before.

If you’ve ever laughed and cried in the face of death — and been heartfelt in both reactions — you’ll understand where Orphans is coming from. This is a remarkable film, truer than most of what you’ll see onscreen.

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