Writer Lyle Hamilton takes us through five of their favourite Scottish films.
Although not a titan in the film-making world, Scotland has, especially in recent decades, produced some outstanding films. The multi-faceted nature of Scottish identity has led to the films that are set here varying widely in their portrayal of the nation. It is worth noting at this point that Br*v*h**rt and other stereotypically mythical and medieval films set in this proud country will be excluded from this list. Instead, the focus shall be on the more interesting examples of Scottish cinema that depict what life is really like in Scotland.
Since being released in 1996, Trainspotting has gone from initially being a cult hit to reaching the status of a landmark of British cinema. Proof of this iconic status is exemplified in the prevalence of posters for the film in university bedrooms across the country and its quotability. Set against the backdrop of the heroin scene in Leith, Trainspotting follows a group of young men as their drug addiction grows out of hand.
In his second film, director Danny Boyle builds on the reasonable success of his debut Shallow Grave (also set in Edinburgh and worth a watch) by retaining lead actor Ewan McGregor and screenplay writer John Hodge to bring Irvine Welsh’s incendiary debut novel to life. T2 Trainspotting, a sequel, is set twenty years after the events of the first film and picks up with the same set of characters, now middle-aged. The initial film is essential viewing to get the most out of T2 but really, Trainspotting should be essential viewing for everyone in Scotland.
- Under the Skin
Johnathan Glazer’s 2013 film follows an alien disguised as a woman, played by Scarlett Johansson, as it roams the streets of Glasgow and latterly, the Highlands. The alien attracts and seduces young men who are then, seemingly, harvested by it.
This film is certainly not for everyone as it is slower in pace and lacks any significant dialogue or action. However, the abstract visuals, the blending of both urban and rural Scottish settings, as well as the perfectly suited score by Mica Levi create an atmosphere that is intriguing just as much as it is terrifying. Aside from that, it is worth watching just to see the scenes where Johansson drives a transit van around Glasgow asking genuine strangers for directions and striking up conversation, whilst they are unaware that they are being filmed by hidden cameras.
- My Name is Joe
English director Ken Loach has made several films set in Glasgow and the West of Scotland, including Sweet Sixteen, The Angel’s Share and Carla’s Song. All of these films, and Loach’s filmography generally, deal with prevalent social issues facing the UK. My Name is Joe is Loach’s standout Scottish work. The titular character, Joe, is a recovering alcoholic who we follow as he attempts to find work, navigate love, and coach his local amateur football team, all against the backdrop of council estates in Glasgow. Renowned Scottish actor Peter Mullan won the Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival for his performance as the eponymous character.
Set in Glasgow in the early 1970s, Ratcatcher follows James, a 12-year-old boy, as he navigates growing up in a city that is in the midst of real change. The old slum-like tenements of inner-city Glasgow are being demolished to make way for new social housing. The effects of deindustrialisation, a stagnant local economy, and striking public services are all apparent; this industrial change mirrored by James’ own coming-of-age story makes for an emotionally strong film. The success of Ratcatcher, her debut film, was just the beginning for Glaswegian director Lynne Ramsay, who is now, arguably, one of the UK’s best current filmmakers.
- Local Hero
When it comes to Scottish cinema, there is one name that stands out: writer and director Bill Forsyth. A living legend in the Scottish film scene, he has created some of Scotland’s most important and beloved films. Gregory’s Girl deals with teenage angst and the search for first love in suburban Glasgow (Cumbernauld to be precise) while Comfort and Joy offers a wholesome, comedic tale set in the heart of Glasgow with a story about rivalling ice cream vans.
However, Forsyth’s masterpiece is set in the far north, on the Aberdeenshire coast. When an American oilman (Mac) arrives in a small town looking to buy land to extract its natural resources, he has to contend with an idiosyncratic, insular Scottish community. This situation leads to an exploration of the deeper themes of happiness, meaning, and place in the world. It’s so iconic that the red phone booth present in the film (where Mac repeatedly makes long-distance calls to his bosses back in Texas) is still in service today.