Issue 231 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published June 1999 Copyright © Socialist Review
Dir: Peter Mullan
Orphans is set in contemporary Glasgow and focuses on the Flynn family as they deal with the trauma and bereavement in the 24 hours leading up to the funeral of their mother. The film opens with a shot of the orphans of the title standing silently around the coffin. The four are three brothers and their wheelchair bound sister. This quiet moment of contemplation for the Flynn family is both literally and metaphorically the calm before the storm. As a tempest rages through Glasgow, each of the Flynns struggles to find their own way through the turmoil of emotion they are experiencing.
Thomas (Gary Lewis), the eldest, turns to ritual and religion to deal with his pain and spends the night in the chapel watching over his mother's remains. Such is his single minded determination to carry out this task that he places his sister Sheila (Rosemarie Stephens) at enormous risk, sending her off through the city streets on her own. She is left at the mercy of strangers when her electric wheelchair breaks down.
Michael (Douglas Henshall) is stabbed in a pub brawl and when the taxi driver refuses to take him to the hospital 'Sorry. Ah cannae have blood oan the seats'--he hits on the idea of pretending his wound is an industrial injury and claiming compensation. His harrowing journey through the night climaxes in a heartrending moment as he stands before his workmates and declares, 'Ah want compensation... Ah want... Ah want... Ah want ma mammy.'
John (Stephen Cole) finds a focus for his anger in revenge and, teaming up with Tanga (Frank Gallagher), a nasty but humorous smalltime crook, spends the night hunting down his brother's attacker.
This is a remarkable and powerfully moving film which explores the tumult of emotion that bereavement inspires. The rage, the guilt, the resentment and the denial, feelings common to us all in these circumstances, are treated with great compassion and understanding. As the story unfolds, the situations in which the Flynns find themselves are often startling and sometimes absurd, but the characters are absolutely real and totally believable. That the acting is uniformly superb helps enormously too. The dark humour, far from trivialising the raw emotions portrayed on the screen, adds to the poignancy.
When day dawns on the morning of the funeral the storm has subsided and the city streets are calm once more, but the ravages of the gale are evident. The Flynn family, too, bear the scars of their turbulent night. Although the subject matter is dark the film is ultimately uplifting. There are tender moments when small acts of love and caring are bestowed on the orphans.
Solomon and Gaenor
Dir: Paul Morrison
This film is described as a love story, which it certainly is, but its significance is that it is set during the Great Unrest before the First World War and deals with the contradictory ideas and beliefs of a South Wales mining community in a period of social change.
The film works hard visually to present the period as accurately as possible, depicting the hardship of everyday life amongst rows of slate roofed terraced housing and adverse weather conditions (rain, and lots of it). The film is conducted in three languages--Welsh, the language of the working class, Yiddish, the language of Jewish immigrants who have arrived in Wales after fleeing from pogroms in Russia, and English, the universal language in which the characters in this film converse with each other.
At the centre of social life for the Welsh miners and their families is the chapel (and the public house for some of the men). On the one hand the chapel seems radical--unlike the other churches it conducts its services in Welsh, the everyday language of the workers. It also rails against injustice and poverty and implicitly links the plight of the workers to the position of the rich. 'We produce the wealth', the minister preaches.
On the other hand it promotes the deepest social conservatism: strict adherence to the biblical texts, temperance and 'sexual morality'. It acts as a form of social control by literally putting the fear of god into people.
Gaenor is the oldest daughter of a family caught up in all this confusion. Her father is both a militant miner involved in the Great Unrest and a strict nonconformist. Her brother is indifferent to the strikes, a drinker, a thug and a racist (but still a chapel goer). Her mother's life is one long grind of drudgery. Gaenor herself is a Sunday school teacher. They all dedicate themselves through even more sacrifices to getting Gaenor's younger sister through grammar school and hopefully on to a better life.
The community is eventually rocked when it is found out that Gaenor has secretly fallen in love with the eldest son of an immigrant Jewish family, Solomon, by whom she later becomes pregnant. Solomon too has to keep the relationship secret from his family, who are also deeply religious and poverty stricken.
There is no way such a relationship can be accepted, despite the fact that all concerned have so much in common, including the ability to recite verses and tracts from the Old Testament verbatim.
South Wales at this time witnessed horrific anti-Jewish riots as well as strikes, but the film is unsatisfactory in its attempt to explain this. At one point, an elder member of Solomon's family comments on the increase in anti-Semitism.
He says that strikes force some people to scapegoat others because of the hardships involved, but urges his family not to worry because the people here are different and would not do what they did in Russia. However, they do become victims, leaving a grim impression of inevitability.
The real problem with this film is that things just seem to happen of their own accord, strikes happen, anti-Jewish riots happen--but there is no battle of ideas. Above all, there is no real sign of collective power and therefore no corresponding change in consciousness.
The only ray of hope that we are offered is that, through the unconscious actions of people like Solomon and Gaenor, prejudices will be challenged and that unions like this will happen no matter what religion says.