When an actor steps behind the camera to direct a film, one thing
is a given: He or she will elicit fine performances from the cast. Peter
Mullan has proven an engaging yet powerful screen actor, most notably
in Ken Loach's character study of a recovering alcoholic, MY NAMES IS JOE
and as the social-climbing servant Jean in Mike Figgis' underappreciated
MISS JULIE. He has been making award-winning short films for several
years and now with his debut feature, ORPHANS, he can take his place
alongside such accomplished hyphenates as Anjelica Huston, Robert
Redford and Clint Eastwood. Mullan shows a flair for creating domestic
dramas that however fanciful and/or painful contain the essential kernel
ORPHANS unfolds over one long dark night in the lives of the four
Flynn siblings who have assembled on the eve of their mother's funeral.
There's Thomas (Gary Lewis), the eldest who uses his station as a
preemptive in grieving. He claims to have been the most devoted to their
mother and sets out to prove it by remaining in the church overnight.
Sheila (Rosemary Stevenson) is the only girl and has cerebral palsy which
confines her to a wheelchair. Michael (Douglas Henshall) is the only one
who has married and has a family of his own, although he is hardly happy.
Finally, there's the baby, John (Stephen McCole), who, one might say,
has "issues." An almost classical definition of familial dysfunction, these
siblings gather at a local pub to drown their grief, become embroiled in
a brawl that leaves Michael wounded and John swearing revenge, and
lead to each heading off to handle their sadness in a different manner.
Thomas fulfills his promise to spend the night at the church while an
angry and bored Sheila sets off for home alone only to have her
wheelchair battery go dead. John joins with a friend of questionable
character in search of a gun to kill the man who stabbed Michael,
and Michael returns to his home to take stock and make sure his
own children are safe. While the family struggles with its own
internal churning, the weather mirrors their anguish as a freak storm hits.
Mullan, who also scripted, manages to keep the four separate
stories moving, but it becomes clear that his interest lies mostly with
the two younger siblings, Michael and John. Mullan relegates the repressed,
self-centered Thomas to the church. Lewis captures the haughtiness of
the first born, that sense of privilege and responsibility that the eldest
often exhibits. In what is perhaps the weakest segment, he has Sheila
accompany a young girl home as if she were a stray puppy. (Mullan
curiously seems to lack interest in exploring this potentially fascinating
character. It's not clear whether this is because Sheila is female or
has cerebral palsy or both. On the other hand, he earns points for hiring
an actress with the disease rather than an able-bodied performer.
Stevenson does what she can within the confines of this underdeveloped
character.) McCole is believable as the hotheaded John who channels
his anger into revenge. But it is Henshall who has the best and most
fully developed role, in part because Michael is the only one of the
siblings to have married and had children. Watching this inventive,
intense actor run a gamut of emotions is one of the high points of
As would be expected, Mullan displays an ease with his actors
and allows each of the principals at least one moment to shine. On the
other hand, there are several scenes where the pacing is lethargic or
meandering. As already noted, those with Sheila and the family who
shelters her during the storm feel half-formed and there are additional
ones involving John and Thomas that perhaps could have been more
focused; an attempted robbery by the former and the latter's emotional
breakdown while singing at a pub, for example. And the film's coda
feels tacked on, as if a Hollywood ending was called for.
Apparently feeling that the actors thick Scottish burrs would be
incomprehensible to American ears, ORPHANS has been subtitled. Be
forewarned, though, that the subtitles don't always reflect exactly
what's being said; in some instances, they are "translating" the essence
of the character's words, even to the point of watering down the
intention. ORPHANS demands attention, but if the audience is willing
to make that effort, they will find a fascinating, if flawed look at how
one family coped with grief.
Rating: B -
|© 2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.