Last night a dream of many years came true when I finally saw Belle and Sebastian in concert. Its possible you’ve never heard of this Glaswegian indie pop band, despite twenty years and nine albums under their belts, as their brand of pop music is somewhat eclectic and with complex lyrics often heavily inspired by their native Glasgow. Sometimes described as twee or wistful, Belle and Sebastian’s music is the perfect expression of a time and place in Scottish culture, filled with both nostalgia and realism. And Glasgow is very like this. Glasgow is a city both modern and old, a city of progress but still set tonally and stylistically somewhere in the 90s. At the same time there is a stark, brutal realism – a sense of practicality and pragmatism that mingles with a cautious optimism. It is, in short, a beautiful and strange city. And oddly, its a city which serves as the backdrop of only a few – albeit distinctive and quirky – films.
Under the Skin (2013)
This is probably the first movie I will always think of when I think of Glasgow – not because of the plot which revolves around an alien woman who lures men to their death using sex and finds her own humanity in the process – but because she spends the entire movie driving around the various locales of the city and interacts with characters played by local actors. If you want to see Glasgow by movie, Under the Skin is a pretty good way to do it. And while the film itself is pretty dark and atmospheric, Glasgow is also very like that, with greyness perhaps being one of its defining features. Its also one of my favorite new movies, conveying a compelling mixture of strangeness and fragility that is both thoughtful and affecting.
Young Adam (2003)
This is one of a number of fantastic and high intensity films directed by David Mackenzie. The film features Ewan MacGregor as a drifter who finds work on a barge traveling between Glasgow and Edinburgh. Much of the movie takes place within the claustrophobic confines of this barge as it sails down the river, seeing MacGregor and dour housewife Tilda Swinton conduct a secret affair right under the suspicious eyes of her husband Peter Mullan. The movie plays with concepts of loneliness, responsibility, and hopelessness as the characters fight to reconcile desire with conscience. This is yet another greyish, atmospheric movie with that dullness even affecting the countenance of its characters.
The Angels’ Share (2012)
Ken Loach is a director of what you might call social realism and Angels’ Share definitely conveys that sense of pragmatism and cautious optimism that accompanies the poor and less educated population of the city. Angels’ Share tells the story of a group of young men who have narrowly avoided prison, determined to turn their life around, but find it difficult to find honest work with a criminal background – and thus the cycle perpetuates itself. When Robbie (Paul Brannigan) finds himself the father of a newborn son he is determined to give him the life he never had. Robbie and his new friends from his community service group team up and find opportunity at a nearby whisky distillery. Its all very Scottish.
This is an unusual movie starring Jet Li as a man who has been raised by a local mob to act as an attack dog and then escapes to take revenge on his captors. The movie is written by Luc Besson (The Transporter, The Fifth Element, Lucy), so you have an idea that, whatever happens, it will be full of ridiculous and stylish action scenes. The Glasgow backdrop offers a sort of grittiness to these backstreet and underground crime ring scenes, but otherwise there’s nothing especially Scottish about the movie in itself – especially considering the movie is written and directed by Frenchmen and stars an Englishman and a Chinese man.
Perfect Sense (2011)
This is another intense David Mackenzie movie starring Ewan McGregor, but this time about a mysterious disease that is slowly taking away the population’s sense perception. McGregor plays a chef who falls in love with a scientist (Eva Green), and as the scientist struggles to find the cause and cure for the disease, the world must continuously adapt to life without smell, followed successively by taste, hearing, and sight. The Glasgow locations at first seem suspiciously sunny, but as the disease takes over and the characters lose their senses, so too does Glasgow lose its luster and descend into the dampness and fog. For all that, though, this film uses Glasgow beautifully and really displays its distinct charm and deep history.
The Wee Man (2013)
This is a movie about the real life Glaswegian criminal Paul Ferris, who first undertook a number of revenge stabbings against a local gang who bullied him as a boy and was then mentored by a local crime lord. After a number of notorious crimes and time spent in and out of prison, Ferris capitalized on his infamy by writing a number of memoirs. It was this that caused such controversy about the ability of ex-criminals being able to profit from their past crimes and whether they should be allowed to do so. In fact, this particular case is so controversial that when writer/director Ray Burdis went to make the movie Strathclyde Police refused to cooperate with production in Glasgow. While the story is set in Glasgow, the film itself had to be filmed in London.