Director: Dexter Fletcher
Writer: Stephen Greenhorn
Cast: Jason Flemyng, George McKay, Antonia Thomas
If there’s a common strand that contemporary Australian and Scottish cinema share, its that a lot of their best works are surprisingly dark in nature, often belying the more jovial aspects associated with their respective national identities. When I cast my mind back to Scottish films of the last twenty years, I think of Shallow Grave, Trainspotting, Mrs Brown, Ratcatcher and Sweet Sixteen. Even the films that are set in Scotland but aren’t Scottish productions per se (think Braveheart and The Illusionist), they are still pretty gloomy for good portions of their running time.
So with that said, Sunshine On Leith, the all-singing all-dancing Scottish musical based on songs by The Proclaimers, is the perfect tonic to all the aforementioned films. If you’re a Scotsman or Scotswoman abroad and are pining for the homeland but don’t want to watch a film with a dead baby crawling the ceiling in the nightmares of a man suffering from heroin withdrawl symptoms, then Sunshine On Leith is for you!
The film opens in Afghanistan of all places as two young Scottish soldiers, Ally and Davy, belt out Sky Takes The Soul before coming under enemy fire. Although the firefight claims some of their friends, they return home unscathed to Edinburgh. Returning from service, they are welcomed home by family, friends and girlfriends. They have finished their tour of duty and the world is their oyster.
Or is it? Ally dates Davy’s sister Liz who appears to be outgrowing life in Edinburgh and possibly life with Ally. Davy wants to settle down and start a family which is the last thing Liz wants. She aspires to see the world and applies for a nursing role in Florida as her ticket out of town. Meanwhile, Davy is frustrated by his empty career prospects as he gets landed working in a call centre. Although things momentarily look up when he begins dating the beautiful Yvonne, his world comes crumbling down when the 25th wedding anniversary of his parents Rab and Jean ends in disaster. Jean discovers that Rab was unfaithful in the early years of their marriage and has an adult lovechild who he has been in contact with. A fight breaks out at the party and Davy almost strikes Yvonne inadvertently.
Things sound messy for Davy, his family and his friends but it’s nothing an enthusiastic musical number and dance routine can’t fix.
Sunshine On Leith is the sort of film that the tourism board of Scotland would absolutely eat up. They should give this DVD away at travel expos. Edinburgh looks absolutely picturesque, with sunny skies and not a drop of rain. The cast of characters stroll past virtually every major Edinburgh landmark and scenic viewpoint you could think of and there is nary a drunkard or junkie in sight. Peter Mullan, who memorably played the Mother Superior heroin dealer in Trainspotting, makes an appearance in Sunshine On Leith where he plays a kindly, gentle father who loves his kids and wants the best for them. This is Scotland putting its best and tidiest foot forward.
The lifeblood of any good musical comes from the song selection and the performances of its leads. Sunshine On Leith has the first part covered handily thanks to its catalogue of Proclaimers songs that it mines to good effect. I’m not a Proclaimers fan so I didn’t know every tune but it didn’t take me very long to begin tapping my toes or start humming along to the unfamiliar material. The performances from the four leads – George McKay, Kevin Guthrie, Antonia Thomas and Freya Mavor – are all universally excellent. They give spirited, enthusiastic, lung busting performances that do justice to the songs they cover.
I have to admit, part of the reason I think I liked Sunshine On Leith was the unlikely setting. There is nothing particularly revolutionary or outstanding about the singing, dance choreography or the storytelling in Sunshine On Leith. What gives it such a unique appeal is that it has such a particular cultural identity. A cheery, up tempo Scottish musical sounds like an unlikely recipe for a successful film. It works better than you can imagine. It’s a little bit schmaltzy, unashamed saccharine and full of folksy charm and thats exactly why I like it so much.