The Cameo

My Old School

01/09/22

The Cameo, Edinburgh

Truth, they say, is stranger than fiction. In Brian MacKinnon’s case, the two are intertwined. He’s the Peter Pan of Glasgow, the perennial schoolboy who returned – aged thirty-two – to the classrooms of his youth, determined to press rewind and try again, hoping for a different outcome second time around. Because MacKinnon had only ever had one desire: to become a doctor. And, if at first you don’t succeed…

…then you change your name to Brandon Lee and pretend to be sixteen. Right?

Right.

My Old School, directed by Jono McLeod, is a little masterpiece. The documentary blends animation with archive footage; audio recordings of MacKinnon with lip-synching from Alan Cummings; former classmates’ recollections with teachers’ regrets. Perhaps McLeod’s insider-status helps: he was actually there, one of Brandon’s peers; he’s able to acknowledge how benign MacKinnon’s deception was, as well as how bloody weird. There’s no attempt here to sensationalise, to turn this into something creepy or dangerous. Instead, the focus is on how strange – and ultimately sad – MacKinnon’s story is.

Cummings manages to convey MacKinnon’s peculiar blend of arrogance and vulnerability, and the animation (by Rory Lowe et al) has a retro Grange Hill vibe that suits the period. Brandon’s school pals come across as a kindly, forgiving bunch, more bemused than outraged by his deception.

In the end, there’s a terrible sense of poignancy, as we realise that everyone else has moved on, their schooldays firmly behind them. They’re busy living their lives: they are pharmacists, comedians, parents, carers, wrestlers, business leaders – and film makers. Meanwhile, MacKinnon is stuck, clinging to the past, chasing the memory of a broken dream.

4.5 stars

Susan Singfield

Gwledd (The Feast)

24/08/22

The Cameo, Edinburgh

A Welsh language horror feature on general release, showing at a cinema near me – a good 200 miles away from my native land? How can I resist? (Answer: I can’t.)

Another lure is the actor Annes Elwy. We were mesmerised by her performance as scary teenager Mia in the bilingual TV series Craith (Hidden); it was clear that hers was a name we’d hear again. And here she is, playing another scary teenager. No doubt she’s just as skilled in portraying different character types, but – ooh – she is adept at this. This time, she’s Cadi – a sullen, watchful kind of girl, a kitchen hand in the village pub, drafted in to help the local MP and his wife to host a dinner party for some important guests.

But something is rotten in the state of Cymru. Gwyn (Julian Lewis Jones) and Glenda (Nia Roberts) might seem successful: check out their swanky new house, stark and incongruous in the lush Welsh countryside. But they’re dancing with the devil, allowing local businessman, Euros (Rhodri Meilir), to drill their land for precious minerals. Their neighbour, Mair (Lisa Palfrey), is appalled. “What if She awakens?” she asks, when Glenda tries to persuade her to let Euros mine ‘the Rise’, part of which is on her farm.

But of course, She is already awake – and ready to exact revenge…

So far, so good. Gwledd, written by Roger Williams, has all the hallmarks of the folk horror films we love. Sadly, it has some issues too, which mean it doesn’t quite hit the mark.

The first problem is its glacial pace. I’m all for a bit of mounting dread, but the first hour is so slow it’s almost soporific. It’s like the scenes are being stretched to fill the running time, which isn’t a good look. And then there’s the recaps for the hard of thinking; director Lee Haven Jones needs to trust his audience more. I don’t need to see a flashback to a piece of glass being hidden: I noted it just thirty minutes ago; it was a memorable thing. In the end, the story is just a bit too obvious, and – although the stakes are definitely raised in the final stretches – it’s too little and too late.

There are plus points. Elwy is wonderfully enigmatic in this role, and Steffan Cennydd (Guto) and Sion Alun Davies (Gweirydd) clearly relish playing the hosts’ creepily twisted sons. The soundtrack, by Samuel Sim, is very atmospheric too, and it’s impressive to see how much gore can be wrung from what is obviously a small budget.

But in the end, even though I really, really want to like it, Gwledd feels like a bit of a let-down.

3 stars

Susan Singfield

Happening

03/05/22

The Cameo, Edinburgh

Happening – or L’événement – is a harrowing tale, directed by Audrey Diwan and based on author Annie Ernaux’s experience of an unwanted pregnancy. It’s 1963, and the students at Angoulême university are preparing for their exams. It’s hot and hormones are running wild, but sex is a shameful, clandestine activity, and ‘getting caught’ is every girl’s nightmare.

When Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei)’s period is late, she knows exactly what it means. She faces a stark choice: have a baby and forsake her dreams of a career in academia, or have an abortion, thus risking imprisonment or death. She’s a clever girl, destined for great things. She can’t bear to see her future curtailed; she’s not ready to be a mother. But procuring a termination proves punishingly difficult.

This is a hard film to watch. Vartolomei is compelling in the lead role, and her desperate isolation really strikes a chord. Poor Anne! No woman should have to go through such troubles alone. The ‘father,’ Maxime (Julien Frison), is useless. He’s more worried about what his friends think of Anne than he is about her plight. What does she want him to do? Nothing, she tells him. She’ll manage by herself – just as she has throughout this ordeal. Because there’s no one who can help. Not her mum (Sandrine Bonnaire); she’s so proud of her brainy daughter – how can Anne face disappointing her? Not her best friends (Luàna Bajrami and Louise Orry-Diquéro) – she can’t make them complicit because they’d face gaol time too. Not her doctor – he’s definitely not on her side. So Anne is utterly, irrevocably, unbearably alone.

She does find a way, of course. Women do. This is why banning abortion is nothing more than an act of wanton cruelty. Unwanted pregnancies don’t miraculously become wanted ones; women’s lives just get harder. Anne has to skulk in the shadows, begging for help from people she barely knows, hoping against hope they don’t betray her. And, when she does – finally – find someone who can assist her, she has to sell everything she owns to fund the procedure.

Meanwhile, Maxime’s still frolicking on the beach with his pals, his life untouched.

It makes me angry, watching this at the same time as Roe V Wade is under fire in the USA. We know what happens when women can’t access legal, safe abortions: they die. The Supreme Court is attacking women’s basic human rights, condemning thousands to suffer. How dare they?

Happening‘s release is a timely reminder of what we stand to lose. Although it’s set in the 1960s, it doesn’t have the feel of a period drama: the fashions are neutral, the obviously contemporary details restricted to the music and the law. This lends the film an immediacy: this issue isn’t just an historical one.

Laurent Tangy’s cinematography captures the oppressive summer heat, the bleached colours reminding us of time’s inexorable progress. As the weeks unfold and Anne approaches the point of no return, the impulse to look away becomes almost irresistible.

And yet we can’t. We mustn’t. Because Anne doesn’t have that luxury.

5 stars

Susan Singfield