SCOTTISH Mussel is a toxic mix that raises questions over film festival’s judgment, writes Alistair Harkness
Toxic waste features prominently in the conclusion of Scottish Mussel (*) and you’d be hard-pressed to find a more appropriate visual metaphor for the message this staggeringly incompetent rom-com’s inclusion in the Edinburgh International Film Festival sends out about the event. Receiving its world premiere last night, and now included in tomorrow’s suddenly erroneously titled “Best of the Fest” strand (it also has a screening today), it is jaw-droppingly bad, an embarrassing collection of tartan clichés, barely formed ideas, amateurish performances and groaning gags involving erections, sick otters and machine gun-toting gangsters.
It is the opus of writer/director/star Talulah Riley, one of the stars of the St Trinian’s franchise, whose move behind the camera makes her the filmmaking equivalent of one of those delusional X-Factor wannabes who turn up at auditions convinced of their own non-existent talent.
She plays Beth, a well-to-do conservationist dedicated to protecting fresh-water molluscs from the scores of gangsters apparently making daily trips from Glasgow to the Highlands to raid riverbeds for pearls they can flog on the black market.
Stumbling into this illicit trade is Govan-based chancer Ritchie (Martin Compston). He falls for Beth after seeing her bikini-clad form emerge from a river. In a confused bid to win her heart while simultaneously sourcing information on the best places to find the lucrative pearl-producing mussels she’s trying to protect, he proceeds to volunteer at the wildlife centre she runs. Will he change his ways? Take a guess.
As opposites-attract rom-com premises go, this is as straightforward and uninspiring as the come, but Riley still manages to lose track of it by filling the film with random subplots, irrational characters and frequently over-written dialogue. Indeed, as the action builds towards – or rather falls apart en route to – its eco-disaster finale (soundtracked, but of course, by The Proclaimers), the plotting becomes so incoherent it almost seems avant-garde.
Among the plethora of demented supporting numbskulls cluttering up the action is a bafflingly accented wildlife ranger called Ethan, whose presence suggests Riley is a big fan of Fool’s Gold-era Matthew McConaughey (Ethan is played – often shirtlessly, and with no flair for comedy – by Brit actor Morgan Watkins). More irritating is Paul Brannigan as Ritchie’s pal Fraser, a skunk-smoking bampot given to curious facial expressions and random pratfalls, and who, at one point starts to fall in love with Ethan, before hooking up with a random girl in the final scene. What is going on here?
As for Riley’s performance, her character complains to her kookily hatted friend (Marianna Palka) about always being expected to exploit her looks, but Riley herself is not averse to stripping down to her pants whenever the action doesn’t require it. The whole thing smacks of a vanity project, and while there’s nothing wrong with her impulse to make a fluffy rom-com, these types of movies still require a degree of craft to pull off effectively.
The EIFF certainly isn’t doing itself any favours providing a platform for it, and the fact that the festival’s senior programmer, Niall Greig Fulton, has a supporting role (he plays a gangster’s heavy) doesn’t look good either, especially when there’s no other justification beyond parochialism for including it in the programme.