“Orphans” is every bit the sort of movie you describe as “cheeky,” in that it is rude and obnoxious, but not unlikably so. In fact, you suspect it’s got a warm heart underneath all that mischievousness.
From Glasgow writer/director Peter Mullan comes this comedy/drama set in a Scottish brogue so thick, the film is actually subtitled. It begins the night before the funeral of a mother. One gets the sense she was a good mother in that each of her four children deeply mourns her loss and reacts strongly in one way or another.
The eldest is Thomas (Gary Lewis), overwhelmed by a sense of responsibility and order. It is he who vows to keep vigil all night in the church, despite a bad storm that knocks the roof off and sends a Virgin Mary statue crashing to the ground. Chaos is something he cannot understand or tolerate, which is unfortunate, given his siblings.
Michael (Douglas Henshall), for example, gets stabbed non-fatally in a bar fight and spends the rest of the night half-heartedly trying to get medical help, while also figuring out a way to make it look like a work-related accident so he can get compensation. The youngest, John (Stephen McCole), wants to find and kill the bastard who stabbed his brother; he is aided in this by his cruel, unhinged cousin Tanga (Frank Gallagher). Their sister Sheila (Rosemarie Stevenson), meanwhile, confined to a wheelchair and mildly retarded, gets lost in the streets and is taken in by a family celebrating a birthday party.
Though Thomas is not the most interesting character of the lot, his story is the most resonant. After symbolically being the only grown-up in the family, caring for mother until her death and then taking care of the services, he literally takes her upon his shoulders as the only pallbearer still walking when the time comes to bury her. (“She’s not heavy, she’s my mother,” he tells the priest.)
It is also he who has the most difficult time letting Mum go. “This place is full of dead people,” someone tells him as the cemetery. “We don’t belong here.”
It’s delightful to watch the various hijinks unfold as the siblings have their separate adventures. The events range between funny and somber, often at once; such a deft inter-weaving of humor and pathos is rare.
Humor is used extensively in the film, notably with the pallbearer scene but in several other instances also. Cruelty is a recurring theme as well; to what end, I don’t know. The bar fight occurs because of both: As a heartbroken Thomas sings karaoke in tribute to his dead mother, some patrons laugh at the sappiness of it all, which infuriates Michael, leading to a brawl. “How can anyone laugh at a time like this?” is the question on Michael’s mind. Well, they can laugh because life goes on, doesn’t it? That’s the point. People die, and it’s sad, but life does go on. And even when you don’t want it or expect it, there is comedy all around you. Thick, black, morbid comedy, maybe, but something to lighten the mood nonetheless.
B+ (; )