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Bleak, But Touching
on 24 June 2013
This 2010 directorial debut (full feature) film by Scot Morag McKinnon is a slow-moving, bleak, darkly comic and intimate tale of a small (family) group of working people in Glasgow. OK, this is, of course, a subject that has been done many times before (and, I would say, more impressively elsewhere), but nevertheless McKinnon's film is a promising effort, not exactly dynamite dramatically, but filled with enough moments of emotional power and dark hilarity to certainly make it worth a watch. As far as I can tell, Donkeys receive no (or only a very limited) cinema release south of the border, which is a shame if, like me, you don't tend to gorge on the superficial thrills and CGI effects now required for most multiplex film releases (oh no, I'm on that hobby horse again!).
McKinnon's film charts the minimalist existence over a few days of (elderly) best friends Brian (Brian Pettifer) and Alfred (James Cosmo), who have delayed their plans to emigrate to Spain's sunnier climes, whilst the latter attempts to deal with latent health problems and mend his broken-down relationship with daughter Jackie (Kate Dickie), thereby fostering a relationship with his grand-daughter Bronwyn (Natasha Watson). Into the mix comes Stevie (Martin Compston), who has returned home to hospital-bound mother Margaret (Jackie's neighbour) and whose paths cross with (and more specifically whose parentage is the subject of debate for) Brian and Alfred, to some humorous, but tragic, effect . Whilst (for me) McKinnon's film takes some time to get going and rather peters out at the end, along the way there are some great moments of emotional engagement and comedy. This is, for me at least, not surprising given the cast that McKinnon managed to assemble. Most impressive of all are Cosmo and Pettifer - these characters are lived-in, real people, and both actors excel in their portrayals of the dour, but devoted, pals. The shot of Cosmo staring into the distance as his daughter walks away from the window of the chip shop in which owner (fat) Luigi sings Puccini's O Mio Babbino Caro is a truly magical moment.
Almost as impressive is Kate Dickie's conflicted mother, torn between daughter and father, whilst, in the former role, 14-year old Natasha Watson puts in an astonishing turn as Bronwyn. Compston is solidly reliable as Stevie (more in the Alice Creed-reliable mode, rather than his outstanding debut turn in Ken Loach's Sweet Sixteen, however), whilst Natalie Press also appears in a cameo role as a hospital doctor.
On a final point of interest, the characters in Donkeys were actually created by Danish director Lone Scherfig (she of Italian For Beginners and An Education fame), a role she also fulfilled for the characters in Andrea Arnold's excellent Red Road (which also starred Kate Dickie and Martin Compston) as part of a joint Scottish/Danish film project, The Advance Party (Donkeys is the second in a planned trio of films).