About this time last year, somebody showed me a trailer for a still-in-production film called Sullivan’s Winter. I get sent a lot of trailers for films about the outdoors but something must have appealed to me about this one because apparently, according to the indelible record of the interweb, after watching it I tweeted “reckon this is going to be my favourite film of the winter (even though it hasn’t actually been made yet.)” The trouble with making a statement like that, of course, is that there’s a very real risk of ending up with egg on your face if the film turns out to be either a) just OK or b) less than OK. Happily, however, having just watched the final cut, I can honestly say that Sullivan’s Winter more than lives up to the promise of the trailer.
Directed by 25-year-old filmmaker Andrew O’Donnell, who hails from Lennoxtown in East Dumbartonshire, it tells the fictional story of a young naturalist and writer, the titular Sullivan, played by Blane Abercrombie. Sullivan is on assignment for an outdoors magazine, he tells us. He’s been given the winter off to write an extended essay on his travels around Scotland and – perhaps the most obvious giveaway that his character is made up – he says the magazine he works for has even given him a modest allowance to cover travel and accommodation.
For all the tongue-in-cheek narrative layering, however, young Sullivan turns out to be an extremely charismatic and entertaining host. If you didn’t know he was an invented character, you might say to yourself “here’s a lad with a serious future as a presenter of wildlife programmes on the telly.” Perhaps it’s the bobble hat he wears throughout the film or perhaps it’s his infectious enthusiasm for everything he does, from bird-watching to ice skating, but more than once I found myself comparing him to the late, great Tom Weir. It’s doubtful that Weir would ever have considered using some of the riper lines from the film in an episode of Weir’s Way – ptarmigans hopping around in the Cairngorms are said to be “one of Scotland’s most mental birds,” and during another birdwatching expedition an area of pine forest is said to be “hoaching with tits” – but still, however obliquely, a little of the great man’s spirit lives on here.
One thing Weir never had access to during his working life but would no doubt have marvelled at is the high-definition aerial footage filmmakers are now able to capture using drones, and Sullivan’s Winter makes spectacular use of these hi-tech toys. Drone pilot Kirk Watson is the man at the controls, and his sequences soaring through the Cairngorms and along the cliffs of Skye’s Trotternish Peninsula as waterfalls tumble hundreds of feet into the sea are among the film’s more heart-stopping moments.
On the whole, though, the film is about Sullivan’s attempts to track down some of Scotland’s more elusive critters, and he manages quite a haul, from the aforementioned ptarmigans and crested tits plus deer, salmon and mountain hares in the Cairngorms to otters, seals, sea eagles and even golden eagles on Skye. The wildlife photography is first-class, too, particularly the slow-motion sequences of sea eagles effortlessly plucking fish out of the water.
Young Sullivan the outdoors journalist may be an invented character, but the man who plays him is still a multi-talented outdoorsman: he dons snowshoes to go in search of mountain hares, paddles his Canadian canoe around flooded towns following heavy rains and chops wood like a pro. The film’s spectacular finale sees him combine two more of these skills to dramatic effect: first he snowboards off the back of Cairn Gorm to the shores of a frozen Loch Avon; then, having ascertained that the ice is (just about) strong enough to take his weight, he swaps his snowboard for ice skates and goes flying up and down his own, private three mile-long ice rink as Watson’s drone circles overhead.
At the end of the film, spring has arrived, so Sullivan dons a wetsuit and dives into a river. As he does so, the bobble hat he’s been wearing all through the film comes off, and in the film’s final few frames we see it drift off down the carrying stream. A small nod to Tom Weir? I’m not sure, but I like to think so.
*Sullivan’s Winter will be available to watch online from 25 December. For more information, see www.facebook.com/belugalagoon; to watch the trailer, visit www.youtube.com/watch?v=e109WqllzZw