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Orphans, the new film
from writer-director Peter Mullan, begins with a long take of four siblings gathered
around their mothers coffin on the night before her funeral. Awash in grief, and
self-conscious of their behavior in front of each other, they enact a simple goodbye
ceremony for the woman who bore them. A small marvel of discipline, it brings to mind the
beautiful closing scene in Big Night, as the actors are required to stay in
character while doing very little. Unfortunately, its also the most interesting and
heartfelt look we get at Mullans characters, even though the film still has some 95
minutes of running time.
Orphans follows these four people as they stumble through a rainy night in Glasgow, each of them dealing with their loss in their own different ways. Thomas (Gary Lewis), whose lifelong filial dutifulness has bleached all the life out of him (even his skin looks like parchment), insists on spending the night beside his mothers body in the church. Michael (Douglas Henshall) is stabbed in a pub brawl, and tries to survive without medical care until dawn when he can fake an on-the-job injury for the workers comp. John (Stephen McCole), enraged by Michaels stabbing, passes the night looking for his brothers attacker so that he can take revenge. Sheila (Rosemarie Stevenson), who is confined to a wheelchair by cerebral palsy, is taken in by a family of Good Samaritans (and drops out of the picture for all practical purposes).
Mullan has created a wildly uneven film, both in quality and in tone. On the one hand, hes given it a Maxwell Anderson stage-play atmosphere by having a metaphorical rainstorm engulf the city during the night. On the other, hes succumbed to the cry of the youth market sirens, injecting violence and gross-out comedy where it doesnt belong. A man ejaculating into another mans face, a bartender who imprisons disfavored patrons, a darts game that uses a mans rear side as its target all this and more has been squeezed into a movie thats ostensibly about a family recovering from the death of its mother. Who knows what imp began whispering into Mullans ear that a straight drama would be too boring, too square, for these modern times? Whatever it is, he should track it down and kill it, for it caused him to turn Orphans into a tart of a movie thats trying to please all comers.
One suspects that the siblings take their separate paths during the stormy night not because the symbolism is apt, but because Mullan knows that their conflicts arent sharp enough to come to a point. No one in this bruised and battered tribe can ever surprise us because theyre nothing but Christ figures. Suffering is their only attribute, and theyre each allotted a Cross a stab wound, or a wheelchair which they drag through the entire movie. Orphans is in one sense about paralysis, but its form reflects its content in ways that ought to alarm its creator. In places it makes Long Days Journey Into Night look like Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Orphans shows some talent, but its neither for violence nor family drama. It does have a handful of lyric sequences that work beautifully. In one, Michael slides on a wooden pallet down a long loading ramp and into the River Clyde, where he begins washing out with the tide; in another, the storm tears the roof off the church, and the ensuing maelstrom suggests that Thomas grief has brought on the apocalypse. Both scenes are shot and edited so well that you wish Mullan had dropped all of the revenge plots and masturbating old men, and stuck with this material that actually pulls some poetry out of his characters. Its too bad that Orphans is content to be a kitchen-sink drama thats full of old dishwater.
- Tom Block