Good intentions aren’t enough to rescue “Chasing the Deer,” an ambitious Brit low-budgeter about the failed Jacobite rebellions in Scotland that climaxed in the 18th-century bloodbath at Culloden. Fine attention to detail and OK performances are tripped up by a cluttered script and unimaginative direction, consigning the effort more to classrooms and specialized dates. Pic doesn’t cut it as a commercial item.
The movie was lensed in spring ’94 on a $ 750,000 budget, largely raised by individual subscription and the rest contributed by Scottish producer Bob Carruthers’ docu house, Cromwell Prods. (Over 200 of the private investors, many of whom appear as extras, are listed in the end crawl as “associate producers.”) Pic preemed in Scotland in fall ’94 and opened on a single screen in London in December, having lost eight minutes in its journey south. Title is taken from a Robert Burns poem.
Opening scenes sketch the aftermath of the first uprising in 1715 by the blue-beret Jacobites, followers of the late King James II, a pro-Catholic. Thirty years later, the young Bonnie Prince Charlie (Dominique Carrara) arrives in the Highlands from France intent on grabbing back the English throne. He rallies Scots (and others) still faithful to the Jacobite cause and slowly works his way south but, when promised troops from France never arrive, is forced to retreat to Scotland, where he and his followers are annihilated by English redcoats on Culloden Moor, near Inverness, in 1746.
Woven into the history lesson are a handful of personal stories, mostly centered on Alistair Campbell (Matthew Zajac), a Jacobite doubter who’s forced to enlist in the uprising when his son Euan (Lewis Rae) is supposedly held prisoner for shooting a Highlander. In fact, he’s fallen into the hands of the English, where he comes under the wing of Maj. Elliot (Brian Blessed), a veteran hired as an adviser to the government troops.
For those without a copy of the script or a degree in British history, the first two reels are confusing going, crosscutting among Bonnie Prince Charlie wandering around the highlands, Elliot whipping local troops into shape, Euan romancing a local lass, Alistair and his wife, and one of Alistair’s tenants.
The dramatic mists start to clear as the film progresses, but few of the characters, aside from Alistair and his hotblooded Jacobite buddy Cameron (rock singer Fish), really register. There’s simply too much history going on here for the drama to work in personal terms. By trying to have it both ways, the movie fails to satisfy as either docudrama (unlike Peter Watkins’ B&W, mud-under-your-fingernails 1964 BBC telefilm “Culloden”) or character-driven costume drama.
Visually, the pic performs miracles on its peanuts budget, with creative use of smoke machines, rapid cutting in the Culloden climax to give an impression of larger resources, and terrif costuming throughout. But under documaker Graham Holloway’s stolid direction (heavy on close-ups and fixed-camera setups), it’s a meal that just sits there and gradually turns cold.
Blessed, the only name actor on show, turns in a scenery-chewing perf that’s on another planet from the rest of the solid, lower-key playing. Closest contender is Fish, who has considerable screen presence as the passionate Jacobite.
Scoring by John Wetton, a mix of heroic synths and traditional ballads, is a big help in moving things along. Alan M. Trow’s lensing of the largely Scottish locations is good, and would have benefited from widescreen.
Producer Carruthers is currently raising coin by the same process for two further Scottish-themed pix, “Macbeth,” to be directed by Blessed, and “The Bruce,” about 14th-century eccentric Robert the Bruce.