Grief prompts some bizarre behavior in “Orphans,” the feature writing-directing debut of Scottish actor Peter Mullan, who turned heads in Cannes with his prize-winning performance in Ken Loach’s “My Name Is Joe.” While the narrative grasp is a little too unrefined to land much commercial exposure, strong directorial instincts are by no means absent from this original view of a family coming to terms with death. Full of authentic surprises and clearly the fruit of a very dark sense of humor, the eccentric black comedy-drama will serve to whet appetites for Mullan’s future projects.
The opening, which deceptively sets a somber tone, introduces four adult siblings — Thomas, Michael, John and Sheila — around the coffin of their mother in their Glasgow family home. The film then veers progressively further off-kilter as they go through a long night of pain and purification before her funeral the following day.
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While dutiful eldest son Thomas (Gary Lewis) sings a tuneless tribute to his mother in the local pub, a brawl breaks out with a heckler, who stabs Michael (Douglas Henshall). Hot-tempered John (Stephen Cole) sets off in a rage to avenge his wounded brother, but Michael tries to get through the night without medical treatment in order to pass off the stabbing as a work injury the following day and claim compensation. Meanwhile, Thomas heads to the chapel for an all-night vigil withwheelchair-bound Sheila (Rosemarie Stevenson), who has cerebral palsy.
As a violent storm rips through the town, eventually tearing the roof off the church, the bereaved siblings are separated. In the more emotional final act, the family members emerge from their individual ordeals to reunite.
Mullan’s plotting is somewhat anarchic and often rendered even less comprehensible by the thick Glaswegian accents that make great chunks of dialogue all but unintelligible. But despite its not entirely consistent tone, the film is kept afloat by the many quirky, often hilarious scenes and encounters that punctuate the long night of chaos and sorrow.
Visually, the film could be more interesting. But the director’s focus on performance yields strong results from the actors, who embrace both the material’s dark and light moods.