Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Dexter Fletcher
Stars: George MacKay, Kevin Guthrie, Freya Mavor, Antonia Thomas, Peter Mullan, Jane Horrocks, Jason Flemyng.
Sunshine On Leith is the second film from Scottish actor turned director Dexter Fletcher (from the tv series Press Gang, etc), whose first film Wild Bill screened at MIFF in 2012. This feelgood musical drama is a marked contrast to that dour, gritty drama, and it takes its title from the second album for cult Scottish band The Proclaimers, best known for their 1988 hit I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles). It also does for the back catalogue of The Proclaimers what the light and breezy music Mama Mia! did for the songbook of ABBA. But unlike that Swedish super group of the 70s, the Proclaimers have only had a couple of international hits to sing about. But their infectious, working class songs are cleverly woven throughout the narrative of Sunshine On Leith, which is based on the popular 2007 play by Stephen Greenhorn, and drive the drama forward.
The central characters here are Davy (George MacKay, from For Those In Peril, How I Live Now, etc) and his best friend Ally (Kevin Guthrie, from Trash Humpers, etc), two young soldiers returning home following a tour of duty in Afghanistan and trying to readjust to life as civilians. Ally is the boyfriend of Davy’s sister Liz (Freya Mavor, from Skins, etc), a nurse at the local hospital, while Davy hooks up with her best friend Yvonne (Antonia Thomas, from tv series Misfits, etc). The path to romance however is a little rocky and the young lovers have to deal with numerous complications and emotional setbacks before they can find happiness. In the meantime Davy and Liz’s parents, Rab (Peter Mullan, from My Name Is Joe, etc) and Jean (Jane Horrocks, from Little Voice, Absolutely Fabulous, etc), are preparing to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary. But a dark secret from Rab’s past emerges which threatens to upset the celebrations.
Sunshine In Leith is tinged with an air of melancholy, but it remains optimistic, upbeat and warm as the characters spontaneously burst into song like characters in a 60s musical. There are a number of songs interspersed throughout the film, all voiced with varying degrees of success and conviction by a cast not renowned for their musical ability. There is a moving rendition of Oh Jean from Mullan, but the undoubted highlight is the climactic, show stopping singalong of the big hit I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles), which is wonderfully choreographed by Fletcher, and which will have you tapping your feet and singing along, and you will leave the cinema with a smile on your face.
Fletcher has directed numerous music videos and he handles the material quite proficiently. He gets the tone right for this crowd pleasing fare. The youthful cast in particular bring an infectious energy and vitality to their performances. Mullan, who often plays the gruff, hard man, is cast against type here in a more sympathetic and emotionally vulnerable role as Rab, and he brings a touch of gravitas to the role. Horrocks is also very good as Jean, who has to deal with the emotional fallout of her husband’s revelation.
There is an air of contrivance and predictability about some of the plot developments here, but the melodrama eventually works its magic on the audience. Greenhorn’s screenplay occasionally opens the drama up beyond its theatrical origins as he takes the action into the streets of Edinburgh. Sunshine On Leith is certainly a far cry from the grimy and sleazy Edinburgh featured in the fiction of Ian Rankin or Irvine Welsh. And the working class city of Edinburgh has never looked better, thanks largely to the bright and sundrenched cinematography of George Richmond, who also worked with Fletcher on Wild Bill.