Film review: Donkeys


IT'S been more than four years since Red Road stormed Cannes and helped director Andrea Arnold build on the success of her Oscar-winning short film Wasp to become one of the UK's most acclaimed and sought-after filmmakers. Rather less fted has been the much-hyped Dogme 95-esque artistic experiment that Red Road helped launch.

Dubbed "Advance Party", this collaboration - between Glasgow-based Sigma Films and Lars Von Trier's production company, Zentropa - was supposed to be a bold new cinematic experiment in which three promising first-time film-makers would each be given the opportunity to make a feature film according to a predetermined-set of rules: all three films were to be set in Scotland, they all had to feature the same core group of characters, and those characters were to be played by the same actors in each film.

According to the original edict, the chosen film-makers, each working independently of each other, were free to expand the back-stories of the characters as initially conceived by Danish filmmakers Anders Thomas Jensen and Lone Scherfig, but the casting and the basic character outlines would be fixed, thus providing some continuity from film to film. As with Dogme 95, the point, presumably, was to see how imposing limitations on a film-maker might inspire their creativity in other ways, which is an interesting idea, but only if the film-makers embrace it.

That's one of the problems with Donkeys. Directed by Bafta-winning short-film-maker Morag McKinnon, the second Advance Party film flouts these rules from the off. Though some of the characters from Red Road make cameo appearances (most notably Tony Curran's Clyde and Natalie Press's April, who shows up here as a doctor), by recasting one of the main roles and significantly altering the back-story of another, the film pretty much eliminates the connection to the earlier film and renders the overall project somewhat redundant (though given the MIA status of the proposed third film in the trilogy and the belated arrival of Donkeys on the big screen, Advance Party already seemed dead in the water).

That's not to say it's a bad film, necessarily, but it does pose the question: what was the point of making it in this way, especially after Red Road's success? I wasn't the biggest cheerleader for that film, but at least it was easy to appreciate how Arnold, in responding to the restrictions imposed on her by the characters and the setting, managed to make something that was artistically audacious.In comparison, Donkeys seems very ordinary indeed, a bleak slice of Scottish miserablism leavened by odd moments of Still Game-style humour.

It's nicely acted but uneven in tone - the sort of thing that seems better suited to the small screen (something to which its brief running time would also lend itself).

The story's focus is Alfred (James Cosmo), a roguish sixtysomething with a penchant for patter that seems to have driven away most of the people from his life, save for his wastrel best friend Brian (Brian Pettifer). He's planning on going to Spain with Brian, but before he can go, he's decided he wants to make things right with his estranged family, not least because he's got health problems that have convinced him he's nearing the end. Unfortunately, his daughter Jackie (Kate Dickie) wants nothing to do with him, and without getting her on-side, he's going to have a tough time bonding with his granddaughter.

Jackie, of course, is supposed to be the same Jackie from Red Road, but while she shares some of the same character traits - mainly a distrust of people and an unwillingness to let people get close to her - crucial details (specifically the fact that she has a daughter) have been altered for sake of plot convenience. In Red Road, for instance, both her husband and her daughter had been killed in a car accident; here it's just her husband, a tragedy for which she blames Alfred, who also featured in Red Road - he was Jackie's father-in-law - but because a different actor (Andrew Armour) played him, any resonance between the stories has been lost.

That's too bad, because it might have helped the film negotiate its uneasy diversion into tragicomedy as Alfred enlists the help of Jackie's neighbour's son, Stevie (Martin Compston), to soften her up - a move fated to backfire thanks to Alfred having a closer connection to Stevie than either realises. Further obvious and ill-judged plot twists abound, accompanied by flashes of whimsical humour that tend to undermine some of the characters' dilemmas.

Donkeys isn't a disaster, but it is disappointing that it couldn't rise to the challenges set for it.