The Movie Waffler Blu-Ray Review - ORPHANS (1998) | The Movie Waffler

Blu-Ray Review - ORPHANS (1998)

orphans 1998 review
Four Glaswegian siblings reunite for their mother's funeral.

Review by Jason Abbey

Directed by: Peter Mullan

Starring: Douglas Henshall, Gary Lewis, Stephen McCole, Rosemarie Stevenson

orphans 1998 bluray

Orphans marks the directorial debut of Peter Mullan. Better known as the fierce and intense lead in Tyrannosaur and My Name is Joe, one would expect from Mullan a brutal and earnest slice of life in working class Glasgow. Yes there is brutality, and the language is continually industrial, but here there is much that is profound to compliment the profane. It is also, in moments, very funny.

orphans 1998 review

Four siblings meet for the funeral of their mother: milquetoast doormat Thomas (Gary Lewis); want away student John (Stephen McCole); loner and black sheep Michael (Douglas Henshall); and their sister Sheila (Rosemarie Stevenson), who has Cerebral Palsy and is looked after by Thomas.

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What follows is a dark night of the soul for the four characters, told in interconnecting vignettes during the eve of the funeral. Thomas spends the night in the Church with his dead mum, a storm brewing and a shattered Virgin Mary to repair that may be a crisis of faith or the work of an irritated Sister. Michael gets stabbed during a punch up at a Karaoke protecting Thomas after being mocked for singing a particularly lachrymose version of his mother’s favourite song, walking the streets of Glasgow looking for a quiet pint while he tries to stay awake until morning so he can claim the injury as a work place accident. Full of anger and uncertainty, John wants to avenge his brother's stabbing and sets off on a journey of violence and retribution. Tired of being mollycoddled by her siblings, Sheila makes a break for it in her wheelchair, but is then stuck in some cobblestones before being adopted by a group of children.

orphans 1998 review

What makes this such a comfortable debut is the feeling that Mullan knows these streets and the people within. The sense of community, the roughness and brutality that lurks in inner city streets. What he doesn’t do is venerate the city. He takes the scumbags and everyday in his stride. There is a tendency in British cinema to venerate the working-class experience that comes across as at best patronising and at worst a poverty safari populated by saints. Mullan may have worked with Loach but I don’t recall Ken populating his films with a man being accidentally jazzed in the face, a moment of comedy that escalates into an attempted rape. This incident is provoked by a quotidian slight that speaks volumes about class structure and the inchoate rage of a marginalised group who can only vent their frustrations into your takeaway in the basest manner.

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There are moments of surreal humour and imagery that work. A visit to a pub with Glasgow’s most hostile landlord is inspired, ending with a group of people who have slighted the publican imprisoned in the cellar - it comes across as a mix of POW film and Samuel Beckett. Or the funeral in which a single pallbearer disastrously attempts to hold the coffin on his back, a punchline to a comeback that is both wryly amusing and ineffably sad.

orphans 1998 review

Not all works so well. The destruction of a church roof seems a step too allegorical and the story of Sheila seems as wayward as the children who adopt her. John's night of revenge is somewhat one note but does include the film's biggest laugh. It is the one story that plays out like the film you were expecting.

Directed with a sharp eye for the nuances of a city late at night and with some fine performances from relative unknowns, Orphans is a film that belies its low budget. If at times the various vignettes don’t coalesce into a complete work, the moments of pathos and comic brilliance promise a directing career that has been intermittent but fascinating.

A reliable stack of extras including a thoughtful archival audio commentary with writer-director Mullan.

Most substantial is 'Orphans Reunited', a 20th-anniversary documentary filmed for BBC Scotland featuring interviews with Mullan, actors Henshall, Lewis, McCole and Stevenson, composer Craig Armstrong, and others.

An archival documentary featuring behind-the-scenes footage, deleted scenes, image gallery, trailer, subtitles for the deaf and dialect impaired, and audition tapes make up the remainder of feature specific extras.

Most interesting are three short films directed by Mullan: Close, Good Day for the Bad Guys and Fridge all worthy of your time.

This limited edition comes with a booklet featuring an essay by Michael Pattison, an article by Mullan, Mullan’s open letter to FilmFour, critical responses, and film credits.

Orphans is on blu-ray now from Powerhouse Films.