“Ugly beautiful”: the cinema of Glasgow

Credit: Pathé Pictures

Rory Jones
Writer

Glasgow as we see it through our screens.

In an interview with Indiewire in 2000, Glaswegian director Lynne Ramsay was asked to sum up what made her home city so cinematic:

“Glasgow has this amazing light and beauty and rawness, there is a surrealism about it. [It’s] absolutely stunningly beautiful, yet in some places in the city, it’s kind of ugly beautiful… Glasgow feels quite timeless in places. You’ve got a mix of old style and modern buildings and I think it’s one of the best sites to shoot in Britain, basically.”

Cinematic depictions of Glasgow were few and far between for a long period in British cinema (with a few notable exceptions, like Ealing comedy The Maggie and acclaimed Orange March teleplay Just Another Saturday). But over the last thirty or so years, scores of filmmakers have come to the rapidly changing city in search of its visual dichotomies. Ramsay’s beguiling debut feature Ratcatcher made use of the city’s “ugly beautiful” spaces in Dennistoun and Maryhill in its story of a young boy growing up in the midst of Glasgow’s 1973 dustmen’s strikes. The film takes place during a tumultuous period of the city’s history, when traditional schemes were being demolished and residents were being rehoused in modern estates – but this isn’t its focus. We’re shown the city from a child’s point of view, rendering bleak settings surreal and magical: through Ramsay’s lens a polluted canal becomes a vast, mysterious emblem of death; a bus to the countryside a portal to other worlds. The film has often been linked with kitchen sink drama, but it might be more accurately described as a dreamlike, almost impressionist study of a child’s mind.

Glasgow’s reputation of home-grown directorial talents also includes Peter Mullan, who, after appearing as Swanney in Danny Boyle’s Edinburgh-set Trainspotting, set about creating iconic portraits of his own city. His 1995 short Fridge was just a taste of what he would achieve 15 years later with Neds, which delivered a brutal, and, as is customary in Glaswegian filmmaking, blackly funny look at youth culture and gang violence in the schemes of the 1970s. Mullan’s semi-autobiographical film follows studious teenager John McGill as he slowly becomes embroiled in gang culture and knife crime, issues that are still pertinent at this present moment. But like Ramsay, Mullan imbues the serious subject matter with moments of beauty and hyperrealism; there are traces of Danny Boyle, for instance, in a glue-sniffing sequence where John loses a fight to a statue of Jesus.

As an actor, Mullan appeared as the eponymous unemployed alcoholic in 1998’s My Name is Joe, the film that marked the beginning of kitchen sink legend Ken Loach’s “Glasgow trilogy” which included Sweet Sixteen and Ae Fond Kiss. More recently, Loach returned to Glasgow to make 2012’s The Angels’ Share, a film about a community service group that plans to rob a whisky distillery, as protagonist Robbie (Paul Brannigan) attempts to overcome the guilt of brutally attacking a teenager. That this is one of the most comedy-driven films in Loach’s catalogue speaks to the theme of humour in hopelessness that crops up time and again in Glasgow cinema.

Now best known for Cannes favourites Fish Tank and American Honey, British director Andrea Arnold set her sights on one of the most iconic features of Glasgow’s skyline in 2006’s Red Road. The recently demolished high rise blocks in Balornock serve as the setting for a Dogme 95-style thriller that formed the first instalment of Lars von Trier’s projected “Advance Party” project which aimed to produce three features in Scotland, all featuring the same cast but with different directors at the helm. Arnold’s film follows a grief-stricken CCTV operator as she obsessively monitors a man from her past as he goes about his day to day life around the flats. Shot hand-held on a low budget, Red Road uses the forbidding backdrop to mesmerising effect in its tale of urban paranoia.

Taking the idea of inner-city alienation further than it has arguably ever been taken before, Jonathan Glazer’s ground-breaking 2014 Under the Skin captured Glasgow in a way no fiction film has done before or since. The film stars Scarlett Johansson as an alien who stalks the streets of Glasgow, observing human behaviour and hunting for prey. Some of the most recognisable shooting locations include Buchanan Galleries, George Square, Celtic Park and Trongate. What’s unique about these scenes is that they’re mostly comprised of candid footage, shot on hidden cameras so as to capture Johansson’s real interactions with locals. Glazer even had Johansson drive around Glasgow in a transit van fitted with cameras, as she interacted with Glaswegian pedestrians giving her directions. This year’s Only You, from first-time director Harry Wootliff, might seem like a departure from the type of films that usually take place in Glasgow. Shot almost exclusively in Finnieston, it tells the story of a romance between PhD student Jake and Spanish office worker Elena, from their first encounter at Hogmanay to their struggle to conceive a baby as the tensions inherent in a long-term relationship set in. Stunningly realised, Finnieston is the world that incubates the characters’ romance but also the site of their growing tensions and despair, something which harks back to how Lynne Ramsay sees Glasgow as such an extraordinary film location. “I think it has a certain kind of landscape; beautiful but dark.”