Criterion Sunday 225: Tunes of Glory (1960)

I don’t think the liner notes are wrong to suggest this 1960 film is an underrated classic: like a lot of British movies of the period — ones which rely on solid acting and their carefully scripted themes — it sort of gets lost amongst the various European New Wave films which were making a splash with formal innovations and a looser street-bound sense of place. Instead this is largely based in the single setting, a barracks in Edinburgh, where two military officers with contrasting management styles face off against one another: the rowdy and boisterous (and flame-haired Scot) played by Alec Guinness, and his replacement, the controlled authoritarian Englishman played by John Mills. It becomes a film about the reverberations of class throughout the power hierarchies of British life, not to mention — at a more quotidian level — what it’s like to work under a bad manager. Both leads do excellent acting work, and there’s a coolness to the colour cinematography that’s also striking.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Ronald Neame; Writer James Kennaway (based on his own novel); Cinematographer Arthur Ibbetson; Starring Alec Guinness, John Mills, Susannah York, John Fraser; Length 106 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 26 August 2018.

Sunshine on Leith (2013)

I was born in Edinburgh and spent the first ten years of my life there, which means I’m left with peculiarly rose-tinted memories of the place, untouched by the kinds of behaviour essayed in films like Shallow Grave or Trainspotting (the latter of which is cutely referenced here). And much though I applaud the attempt to make this musical resonate with real working-class lives, I’m left feeling it has the same PG-rated optimistic glow of childhood memories running through it as I do.

You can see that sensibility right from the start in the cheesy font of the title, which pops up over a touristy view of Edinburgh’s Old Town. And likeble though the film undeniably is, in truth it lost me pretty early on, when it cut from a view of Edinburgh Castle out the protagonist’s window, to the ‘local’ bus stop many miles away on the Leith waterfront. Leith has always traditionally been the poorer cousin of Scotland’s capital city, and functioned as its port with all the historical baggage that implies. Of course, now it’s far brighter, smarter and more upmarket, fully integrated as part of the city with only hints of its industrial past.

Sunshine on Leith is based on the pop songs of the Proclaimers, via a popular stage musical, and, as its title and provenance suggest, it’s pretty cheerful about everything. The drawbacks are that the characters’ emotional arcs are largely defined by these pop songs and the film’s PG classification, so they never get far beyond simplistic conflicts, or move into the greyer, more irresolvable territory you sometimes feel they need to. On the other hand, I cannot deny those songs their own emotional core, which is sometimes more nuanced than the film can admit. Then again, hearing characters in any film just spontaneously break into song is always a delight, so I imagine many will be able to appreciate and enjoy it on that level alone.

It’s just that the nuances are never really followed through. For example, the English nurse Yvonne (Antonia Thomas), who’s in love with our ex-squaddie protagonist Davy (George MacKay), gets a verse of a song hinting at some dark past, but it’s soon swept away. Sure, “it’s over and done with” (as the song’s chorus goes), but it would still be nice to know more about this darkness that apparently still preys on a largely sunny and optimistic cahracter. The leading men, too — Davy and his mate Ally — are returned from a tour of duty in Afghanistan, but their only link to the brutalising implications of wartime combat is their legless friend seen recuperating at a local hospital. So we get a hint of the bittersweet ramifications of, say, Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, 1964) and its wartime setting, but the bitter implications in Leith are quickly brushed away in favour of the sweet, replaced by stock characters and clichés.

I don’t doubt I’m overthinking this. It’s a pop confection, and even the craggy Peter Mullan cannot help but be glowingly forward-thinking. When the Proclaimers’ songs aren’t being sung, the score is reliably clunky, guiding our emotional responses with a heavy hand, and you get the sense from the picture postcard views and locations that one eye is constantly on the film’s saleability abroad. For me, it also doesn’t help that the film frequently turns to sheer corny sentimentality, but then I also want to imagine my own childhood memories of Edinburgh are not irreconcilably disconnected from reality in the same way that the film is. Sunshine on Leith deserves to do well — Scottish cinema should be about more than feckless junkies — and I predict it may do well in singalong screenings, but I wanted a bit more darkness intermingled with the light.

Sunshine on Leith film posterCREDITS
Director Dexter Fletcher; Writer Stephen Greenhorn (based on his stage musical); Cinematographer George Richmond; Starring Peter Mullan, Jane Horrocks, George MacKay, Antonia Thomas, Freya Mavor; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Monday 7 October 2013.