2019 in Scottish Film, from Avengers to Beats

Blockbusters like Avengers and Fast and the Furious have helped make Scotland a major Hollywood shooting location, but the real story of Scottish cinema in 2019 is the diverse collection of distinctive and joyous homegrown indies lighting up our cinemas

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 04 Dec 2019
  • Beats

For two years on the trot, Scotland has played a part in the biggest blockbusters of the year. In 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War, an early action scene took place in Edinburgh, in which a trio of aliens faced off against Captain America, Black Widow et al on the cobbles of Cockburn Street, the rooftop of St Giles' Cathedral and the concourse of Waverley Station. Follow-up Avengers: Endgame, meanwhile, features scenes in fishing village St Abbs, which has been redubbed 'New Asgard' by an Innis & Gunn-guzzling Thor.

Between them, the films grossed $4.8 billion. Scotland perhaps can’t take all (or any) of this credit, but there’s plenty more for Scottish film fans to crow about in 2019, a year in which a clutch of distinctive, diverse and joyous homegrown features made their bow in cinemas.

Mary Queen of Scots, Wild Rose

The year’s indie cinema hardly got off to a great start, what with Josie Rourke’s ambitious but inert take on Mary Queen of Scots stinking up theatres in January. The only person who seemed to get excited about the film was Angus Robertson, the former MP for Moray, who was inspired by this middlebrow historic drama to turn critic for a week with a bizarre column in The National titled 'Film industry in Scotland is set up to be a blockbuster success'. Despite showing a complete ignorance for how the film industry in Scotland works, and clearly not having seen many Scottish films (he listed The Da Vinci Code as one of our recent success stories), Robertson was onto something when he said Scottish cinema was set for a boom. But it’s been in the indie sphere, rather than blockbusters, that we’ve been excelling.

This was more than evident at Glasgow Film Festival, whose impressive programme this year was bolstered at the 11th hour with the last minute edition of Wild Rose, a rousing comedy-drama about a rambunctious single mother from Priesthill who has ambitions to be a country star in Nashville. The film had two major elements in its favour: first, a knockout performance from Killarney-born actor Jessie Buckley that’s equal parts fierce and tender; and second, Glasgow itself. Locations include the Grand Ole Opry on Paisley Road West, the rough and ready Tradeston boozer The Laurieston and Silverburn Shopping Centre – corners of the city that rarely get a look in most Glasgow productions. “Nobody wants that bland nowhere that sometimes happens when films are made here,” said Nicole Taylor, Wild Rose’s writer, back in February when we complimented the film’s vivid use of locations.

Taylor describes the film as “a love letter to Glasgow” – which wasn’t lost on the film’s early audiences. “In the few places that it's shown so far – in Toronto and at the London Film Festival – I've had Scottish people come up to me and say, ‘This is what it's like to be Glaswegian’,” Taylor told us. “Even if you leave the city, you're obsessed, you're in love and you've got this longing that never goes away.”

Beats and Boyz in the Wood

There was more fine Scottish cinema in store for GFF attendees in the form of Brian Welsh’s Beats, a tender and very funny paean to the friendship between two working-class teens living in a dead-end West Lothian estate in 1994, who find freedom through the local underground rave scene. The film is as lively as the performances from its young stars Cristian Ortega and Lorn Macdonald, while its arty aesthetic and Benjamin Kracun’s crisp black-and-white cinematography giving a hint of French New Wave cool. “We never had the intention to make a social realist film, like a Ken Loach-does-rave movie,” director Brian Welsh told us. “I think there's a language around British cinema, and communities like the one in Beats, that's almost expected. The black and white, I think it almost helped mythologised the time in some kind of way and allows us to learn more from it.”

This isn’t to say Beats doesn’t have a keen sense of time and place. Haunting the edges of its frame is the spectre of Tony Blair. It may be John Major’s government that’s waging all-out war with Scotland’s youth culture in the film, but it’s the shiny false promises of New Labour that provides its low-level political fury. “In 1994, the year John Smith died, Tony Blair met with Gordon Brown to begin the pact that would be the start of the project that was New Labour," said Beats' writer Kieran Hurley, who was adapting his own stage show from 2013. "That's the big significant sea change in British electoral politics that's worth thinking about in relation to the themes of the film.”

Teen pop culture and class politics also clashed in Ninian Doff’s debut feature Boyz in the Wood, which opened Edinburgh Film Festival in raucous style in June. A riotous and touching action-comedy that sparkles with visual invention and is flecked with hope for the future generation, it follows four working-class teen boys hiking through the Highlands as part of The Duke of Edinburgh scheme. The four lads are hardly outdoorsmen, but their trek becomes even more treacherous when it’s revealed a group of aristocrats, headed by a demented duke played by Eddie Izzard, are out to murder them.

Like what Welsh managed with Beats, Doff finds a zesty visual style that doesn’t distract from its sharp political ideas. "I've always struggled with this notion – particularly in UK cinema – that films about political topics have to be really gritty," said Doff. "The options are be very gritty and depressing or it's just knob jokes only. Why does a film with something to say have to be depressing?"

2020: Run, Our Ladies, and Scottish Short Film

This purple patch for Scottish cinema is set to continue. Next year we’ll see the release of Run, the much-anticipated third feature from Scott Graham, which centres on a petrol-head who was born to run, but instead is stuck with a frustrating life that seems to be going nowhere fast in a small fishing village in the north of Scotland. As with Beats and Wild Rose, it’s a film with a very specific time and place, about people whose dreams haven’t been recognised. The same could be said for Our Ladies, Michael Caton-Jones’ lively adaptation of Alan Warner's cult 90s novel The Sopranos, which follows the misadventures of six Catholic school girls let loose in Edinburgh.

Both screened at London Film Festival in October and seemed to go down a storm, particularly Our Ladies, which Caton-Jones was still editing 48 hours before the premiere. Like the films discussed above, don’t expect a work of Scottish miserablism. “You have to remember, it's Sony Pictures putting the money up, so I couldn't do it like it was a shoegazey, Channel 4 misery film,” says Caton-Jones when we met in a London hotel a few days after the premiere.

Having operated in Hollywood since the start of his career, the Broxburn-born director is a dab hand at making personal cinema from within the studio system. “I quite gladly entered into this idea that Sony had, which was basically 'Pitch Perfect 3 meets Trainspotting,'" said Caton-Jones. "Now I've never seen Pitch Perfect, so I don't have a fucking clue what that would look like, but I just said, ‘yeah, of course’. But basically I knew it had to be commercial and that suited me, as I wanted to make something that was a little joyous.”

Add to the above films a crop of shorts from some of our favourite emerging Scottish directors – James Price (Boys Night), Bryan M Ferguson (Satanic Panic ‘87), Simone Smith (Slap) and Ross Hogg & Duncan Cowles (Just Agree Then) to name a few – and you have a distinctive line-up of homegrown films fit to burst with personal expression. Even combined, the box-office receipts from the films above are small change compared to a juggernaut like Endgame, but in terms of visual invention and thought-provoking politics, Scottish cinema this year leaves Marvel in its dust.