Like a deep-fried Mars Bar, one can enjoy the toe-tapping feel-good musical SUNSHINE ON LEITH whilst remarking on its essential lack of artistry. This is another karaoke musical, the trend for which was started by Woody Allen (yes, really) with EVERYONE SAYS I LOVE YOU (ropey cast – but not Tim Roth - sing ‘Just You, Just Me, ‘I’m Through with Love’ and others) and continued with MAMMA MIA, the Abba musical. SUNSHINE ON LEITH adapted by Stephen Greenhorn from his stage play and directed by former child star turned Guy Ritchie prodigy Dexter Fletcher is set to the song book of The Proclaimers and book-ended by their most famous songs ‘I’m on my way (to happiness)’ and ‘I would walk 500 miles’. The other songs are less well-known (‘Jean’, ‘Letter from America’) and are unlikely to infect the public consciousness.
It tells the story, if that is the right way to describe it, of two young soldiers, Ally (George MacKay) and Davy (Kevin Guthrie), who return home, fortunately unscathed, after a tour of duty in Afghanistan. Davy is in love with Liz (Freya Mavor), Ally’s sister. Ally falls for an English nurse, Yvonne (Antonia Thomas), a colleague of Liz. Soon after the homecoming, Ally’s father, Rab (Peter Mullan) discovers that the woman he had a fling with twenty-five years ago has died and left him a twenty-four year old adult daughter. Can he bear to tell his wife, Jean (Jane Horrocks)? Meanwhile, Liz dreams of working and studying in Miami. Can she tell Davy before he goes and does something stupid like proposing? Then Ally has quite a temper. Can he show it and keep Yvonne?
The film lays its three land mines and sets them all off at Jean and Rab’s quarter-century wedding anniversary party. Then the characters try to repair the damage, with apologies and veal, but not a cookbook. (‘Italian recipes for £17.99? I could fly to Italy for that!’). But for some there isn’t a ‘happy ever after’ that involves being part of a couple.
Fletcher is an Englishman making a Scottish film that has anti-English sentiment running beneath the surface. Ally feels guilty about a friend being injured by a roadside bomb and - it is implied – blames the English for sending him there. Davy feels more responsible and can’t bear to see his friend go through physiotherapy with metal legs. ‘It could have been us,’ he muses. There is an element of masochism in his subsequent choice.
Greenhorn uses such well-worn devices as a character being in a life-and-death situation in order to ensure reconciliation. He also brings up Ally’s anti-English sentiment as a deal breaker; he and Yvonne split up. She won’t follow her if she needs him to. Or will he? Cue song.
As we wait for the dramatic bombs to go off, so we also wait for actors to burst into song: expectation is part of the pleasure. The style of storytelling takes its cue from musical introduction. The songs don’t advance the plot but describe where the characters are at any given moment, or what they are anticipating. The choreography isn’t particularly inventive either, but the behaviour whilst singing does not depart too wildly from naturalism. People sing in a pub or at a wedding; they would do this in real life.
Expectation builds to forgiveness and a big musical number outside the Scottish National Gallery on Princes Street; the finale resembles a Building Society commercial. There is one other bomb that goes off about half way through. This is Jane Horrocks’ first singing role since LITTLE VOICE and she blasts her tonsils out with a creditable Edinburgh accent. She also does heart-broken with passion. Peter Mullan sings too, but less said, eh?
SUNSHINE ON LEITH does not touch on any deep issues about youth unemployment and soldiering; Ally and Davy get jobs in a call centre straightaway. Rab appears to be unemployed but nae-body talks about it. There is an element of kitsch that you accept as a fait accompli, part of the territory.
This film is not to all tastes; you are likely to feel somewhat manipulated. Yet it does not really go for big emotions. Fletcher’s own Hitchcockian cameo is half-assed. Really, he stands outside a pub with his back to camera and farts. One surprise is that Fletcher’s contemporary, Jason Flemyng, who plays one of Jean’s co-workers, does not hit on her when he hears her marriage is in trouble. Rather he directs her to a painting of Mary, Queen of Scots. ‘She had it hard, so don’t blame yourself.’ It is a moment that goes nowhere, giving the impression that even at ninety-odd minutes, SUNSHINE ON LEITH is over-extended.
Reviewed at Cineworld Cambridge Screen 6, 11:00am, Sunday 29 September 2013. If you have no interest in this, see DAFT PUNK’S ELECTROMA. A dialogue free road movie and the characters explode at the end.