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The trouble with British cinema may not be that we have an addiction to
realism, but that we have such a dull idea of what reality is. The
opera-singing fish and chip shop proprietor criticized in another
review here, is in fact a real guy, who really sings opera in his fish
bar. Reality contains more than just misery, poverty and squalor. The
miserable goes hand in hand with the beautiful and the absurd. It's
always impressive when a film manages to do justice to all three
aspects of existence, as Donkeys does.
An aging wastrel who fears he may be dying wants to make up with his estranged daughter. From this simple and powerful premise, the filmmakers weave a web of emotional and comic complications, aided by a fantastic cast who make sense of the dizzying shifts from tragedy to farce and back again, sometimes within a single scene or even a single spoken phrase. If you want to experience the messiness of life condensed into a compact and compelling narrative, with the release of both laughter and sorrow, Donkeys will move you.
Premièring at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, which is
'rebranding its focus on discovery,' Donkeys, with its quirky
provenance of Dogme and Advance Party thinking, appears to be just the
ticket. With its characters and storyline produced independently by
different people - an inventive process that spawned Andrea Arnold's
highly triumphant Red Road, anticipation is high.
The narrative brings us a disjointed and estranged family in working-class Glasgow. Alfie, a street-market seller, is 64, not very likable, and in failing health. He desperately wants to be reunited with his daughter and granddaughter. Many of his increasingly complex attempts to achieve this, backfire humorously or miserably.
Donkeys is the first feature film from director Morag McKinnon, whose short film Home won both a Bafta and a Best British Short award at Edinburgh's festival over ten years ago. After a stint in television, she returns to the big screen with a work that defies convention in the making. Advance Party (II) is a concept from Lars von Trier, and based on an experiment of making a set of three stories: each having the same pre-devised characters but with separate and distinct stories. Perhaps to avoid any scriptwriting tendency that distorts characters to fit a developing plot.
The basic 'rules' governing Advance Party film-making:
1.Scripts can take a starting point in one or more characters or they may be subjected to an external drama. Characters can also participate in a form that is governed primarily by neither characters nor plot.
2.Films take place in Scotland but, apart from that, writers are free to place them anywhere according to geography, social setting or ethnic background. Their back-stories can be expanded, family relations can be created between them, they can be given good habits or bad, and secondary characters can be added if it is proper for the individual film.
3.Interpersonal relationships of characters differ from film to film and they may be weighted differently as major or minor characters.
4.Character development in each story or genre does not affect the other scripts.
5.All of the characters must appear in all of the films.
6.The various parts will be cast with the same actors in the same parts in all of the films.
How well does Donkeys deliver on its goals? Jackie, our CCTV operator from Red Road, has a different job and backstory. It's a gritty performance. Her husband is dead. Jackie blames her father, Alfie. Who also 'peed on the telly' ten years ago. The twelve-year-old daughter is perhaps the most redeeming and redeemable character throughout, untouched by bitterness, joblessness, or despair. The moment in the film that moves me the most is when she stands in the doorway of her mother's bedroom. Jackie, as always, is inflicting another round of isolating hurt and anger upon herself. Jackie's daughter, with the simplicity of a child or even that of an angel, looks at her with wisdom beyond her tender years and says, "It's all right to let folk in . . ." But will Jackie ever be able to open up and let people in? And will they be the 'right' people?
Central to the story is the friendship between Alfie and his best mate, Brian, another one of life's elderly employment office rejects. It is a close but strained relationship. Alfie "patted Brian's dog to death" and helped bury him. The mood swings from the light comedy reminiscent of the TV series, Still Game, to morally challenging scenes of death and dying. And what can you leave to those you love when no-one in the world loves you?
Although characterisation in Donkeys is strong, I found it a strain at times to care about anyone long enough to work out the complex family relationships and feud. Episodes that lacked credibility (like the opera singer letting loose in a chip shop for them) beggared belief, and sapped reality from the main players. There were times when I was tempted to agree with Jackie that certain people might just as well get on and die. But for all its exchanges of sourness, Donkeys manages a high note as its finale. "The final rule," says producer Gillian Berrie, "was that the films must make you laugh, make you cry, and have an uplifting ending."
Advance Party is an experimental tool, not a formula in itself for success. Donkeys is an interesting experiment. But its script is patchy, and at times strands the excellent performances in a wasteland of poorly defined relevance. Its drift from comedy to edginess achieves only limited success. Its look at death is less poignant and much less entertaining, for instance, than writer Scherfig's (Dogme) masterpiece, Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself. It has none of the seat-gripping qualities of Red Road, and counters the minimalism of its Dogme ancestry with unwanted music telling us how to feel, or an overload of dramatic devices (such as terrible illness and accidents) to propel the story forward. Yet seen as part of a determined effort to break new ground, it is a treasurable, if flawed, film. Artists must to be free to experiment if movies are to break free of hollow but bankable formulae, and that means there has to be a few eggs broken along the way.
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