Ethics & Public Policy Center

Orphans

Published in EPPC Online on March 1, 2000



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, “repression” 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 anger.

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 him.

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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