Orphans, written and directed by Peter Mullan — the actor who
played the title role in Ken Loach’s
My Name is Joe — is a bit of a bore, at least insofar as its purpose
is to teach a moral lesson that our times are not exactly desperately in need
of. Avoid a rigid and unbending moralism, says Mullan. Why, thank you! I think I
will. Also hypocrisy, excessive reticence about
one’s feelings,
of sexual impulses etc. It may or may not be wise to avoid all of these things,
but there has not been much danger of anyone’s not avoiding them for, lo, these
many years. Likewise, the film’s warning against excessive filial piety, a.k.a.
“living in the
past,” and against showing too much
respect for the dead is not one that our late
20th century badly requires.

But the film starts out very much more interestingly than it ends. In fact,
it is thematically two films, as if Mullan had a good idea,
didn’t know what to do with it, and so
abandoned it and tacked in some anodyne stuff about families sticking together
and “being
there” for each other — that is,
more redundant moralizing. But in spite of all the stuff at the beginning and
the end relating to the death of the maternal parent of Thomas (Gary Lewis),
Michael (Douglas Henshall), John (Stephen McCole) and Sheila (Rosemarie
Stevenson), and about Thomas’s vow to
watch all night over her corpse in the
church — the stuff, that is, that leads
to the moralizing — Mullan pretty much
forgets all this during the main part of the film and offers a study in Scottish

From the character of Willie on “The Simpsons” to that of Robert Carlyle’s in
Trainspotting to Mullan’s own role in My Name is Joe, the Scotsman
as pugnacious drunk has become a familiar figure — almost as much a
stereotype as the Irish drunk used to be. This is the man who thinks that life
has dealt him a poor hand and who goes around with a chip on his shoulder as a
result, ready to prove his entitlement by beating you up. This habit of mind
seems to have something to do with Scottish politics, in particular with
resentment at Scotland’s domination by its neighbor to the south — Mullan
himself describes himself as a
“socialist” — and
also with a strain of modern thinking which
doesn’t know how to free itself from
the past.

In this sense Mullan has a point, linking the anger-story with the dead-mum
story. He would say that Thomas’s
absurd unwillingness to let the dead bury the dead is only a variation on the
theme set up by Thomas’s two brothers
whose sense of honor is engaged after a barroom fight occasioned by
Thomas’s lachrymose tribute to his
mother at a karaoke night. Michael is stabbed by Duncan (Malcolm Shields). Not,
seemingly, very badly injured, Michael decides to try to claim it was an
industrial accident and get compensation, but John decides that Duncan must die
for having wounded his brother and enlists the help of a psychologically
unbalanced cousin (Frank Gallagher) to obtain a weapon with which to kill

The best scene in the film comes as John, already enraged by his brother’s
stabbing, is standing close to a street corner on the rainy night when the story
is set, and a car drives through a puddle, drenching him. Now furious at the
car’s driver, he catches up when the
latter stops for a light and vents some more of his fury, taking off his jacket
to show what has been done to it. Some passing boys call out to him to leave the
old geezer alone, and the boiling rage is transferred to the boys. Off he goes
after them, and the driver of the car that splashed him drives
away — with his jacket. Now even more
furious, he turns again and runs after the car again. The driver stops briefly
and hurls the jacket in the street, then drives off again. As John runs to get
the jacket he is very nearly hit by a bus, which has to stop short inches away
from him. The bus driver takes him to task for carelessness and all the rage
from the previous three incidents spills out at the poor bus driver.

Michael, having had his wound dressed comes up to find his brother
pugnaciously squaring off, it seems, with the bus itself.
“It’s a bus, you daft
c***,” he says;
“you going to take on a
bus?” It’s a funny moment, not only
because John is forever taking on buses but because the impotence of his rage is
well illustrated by his willingness to turn it on anyone or anything at a
moment’s notice: it is equally ineffectual against everything anyway. All the
drunken brawling is of this sort, while those who are not drunken brawlers can
be equally angry at the thought of losing some trivial possession or
advantage—like the wheelchair-bound Mrs Lynch who screeches at anyone
seeking to use her ramp. “That ramp’s for me that’s who it was built for,” she
says. “That’s my ramp!”

Mullan, I suspect, wants us to be touched by pathos as well as laughter at
this combination of powerlessness and pettiness, the one presumably begetting
the other. But for non-socialists and non-Scots, just the laughter will have to
do, I suspect. What we can understand of the sense of entitlement eternally
ignored or threatened by everyone around one comes across really as a portrait
of madness, and madness ceases to be very amusing when it goes on too long or
comes too close to oneself or one’s loved-ones. But for a few stretches in this
mixed-up film it still can be enjoyable to watch.

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