The Scottish actor Peter Mullan, who took Cannes by storm when he played a recovering drunk trying to make good in Ken Loach’s My Name Is Joe, has turned director with a likably odd paean to mother-worship, set in the tough streets of his hometown of Glasgow. In Orphans, four nominally adult Scottish siblings, mourning the death of their beloved mum, split up and roam the city during the night between her death and her funeral, losing whatever slender grip they may have had on their already screwed-up lives.
Mullan has placed an imminent storm on the agenda and furnished each sibling with a prop designed to up the ante of the night‘s events. (He’s gilding the lily rather: In Glasgow‘s inner city, a brawling, warm-hearted cross between Mean Streets and Our Town where people rough each other up and then stop to pick up the pieces, you need only step out the front door and colorful stuff will happen.) Michael (Douglas Henshall), a shipyard worker separated from his wife and two children, sports a stab wound from a pub fight. His younger brother, John (Stephen McCole), a college boy itching to slide off the rails, runs amok with a gun that his mad cousin has provided to avenge the stabbing. Their sister, Sheila (Rosemarie Stevenson), has cerebral palsy and is confined to a wheelchair, while the eldest brother, Thomas (Gary Lewis), cocooned in unbearable sanctimony and a ferocious determination to guard his mother’s coffin through the night no matter what comes down around him, holds himself mulishly aloof from the others.
As an actor, Mullan has worked both ends of the British film scene, with earnest old-school realists like Loach and cheeky young stylists like Danny Boyle (in Trainspotting). He‘s obviously been taking careful notes. Orphans begins with the still-life solemnity of a Terence Davies period piece, but the mood quickly breaks into antic black comedy, though with none of the hip, fuck-you glee of Trainspotting, and with an edge of hard-nosed sympathy. Where Mullan is self-consciously cinematic, it’s less to show off his form than to make a point. In one scene, almost inadvertently beautiful, the camera pans from a man slowly dying of a gunshot wound to two small boys gazing on impassively, while the voice of Billy Connolly, then a scabrous Glasgow standup comedian, gabbling one of his monologues, crackles off the car radio.
Inevitably, the four siblings will move through the stew of brutality and kindness of their night on the town toward some kind of redemption. Yet Orphans is — perhaps deliberately — psychologically undercooked. Since we meet the deceased mother only briefly, as a voice inside her children‘s heads murmuring the standard soothing nothings that brought them comfort in their youth, it’s not clear why they‘re so umbilically connected to her. Nor does it become clear, for Orphans is less a study of four wounded characters detached from their life support than a parable of Glasgow life at its feverish, foul-mouthed finest. Or it would be, had not those responsible for subtitling the movie for American audiences (a necessary step, for Glaswegian is practically a language of its own, so extreme are its cadences and creative mutations of standard English) taken the idiotic step of vacuuming out all the filth. This is rather like removing all the fucks from a David Mamet play. There’s no poetry left, no sense of time or place, and precious little meaning. Thus the incisive rant of a pub drunk, “I love every cunt,” becomes “I love everyone.” I can only imagine that Mullan was not told that his dialogue would be bowdlerized beyond recognition, and that he is sitting somewhere with his head in his hands, cursing the priggish Yanks who ruined his first feature.