It’s frustrating that I’m good friends with several of the personalities behind DONKEYS, particularly writer Colin McLaren and director Morag McKinnon, both of whom I’ve worked with in various capacities, because I’d like to tell you how marvelous DONKEYS is but you’re duty-bound to not believe me. I declare my prejudice in favour of the movie to be near-total, but promise to confine myself to the facts.
Recap: I’ve spoken about this before here, but this movie has an unusual origin it’s worth knowing.
DONKEYS, originally called ROUNDING UP DONKEYS, is a sequel of sorts to RED ROAD, a Scottish arthouse hit based on a scheme devised by Lars Von Trier and Lone Scherfig: three writer-directors were given a group of characters and told to make three movies using them. Morag asked LVT what she should do if she couldn’t find ways to use all the characters from RED ROAD. “Oh, just use the ones you want and have the rest go by in a bus.”
She then set about cheating even more. First she brought in Colin to help with the script. He’s the genius who scripted her BAFTA-winning short HOME, and co-wrote my own hit CRY FOR BOBO. Then she told her employers he was helping. Then she told them he was collaborating. Then she told them he was writing it.
Meanwhile, Colin elevated a bit-player from the RED ROAD cast list to leading man status. This eventually led to the part going to the great James Cosmo (Ewen MacGregor’s dad in TRAINSPOTTING), and Brian Pettifer, a familiar face from Lindsay Anderson’s work, was brought in as his hapless friend. One of the RED ROAD actors threatened to sue. Then he dropped dead. Problem solved.
Colin tinkered. Kate Dickie’s Jackie no longer works in front of a thousand monitors, surveilling Glasgow by CCTV. She now works in a supermarket. She suddenly has a daughter. Natalie Press, a teenage runaway in RED ROAD, is a doctor in this one. This is the alternate universe sequel to RED ROAD. Also, it’s a comedy.
Due to the kind of machinations and screw-ups actuated whenever a film is made, especially with multiple producers, various gags did hit the cutting room floor during the journey to the screen. This resulted in an odd, but ultimately pleasing phenomenon. DONKEYS is a very black comedy, so by not announcing the tone up front, it spectacularly wrongfooted the critics and filmmakers at the industry screening. The audience, expecting a grim slice-of-life in the Loach vein, following on from Andrea Arnold’s rather glum debut, slowly began to suspect that something was up. Titters were heard. “Ah, it’s the comedy of the everyday,” they thought. “A bit of naturalistic comedy in the Mike Leigh tradition.” (I was there, I heard them thinking this. I’m still just reporting the facts here.)
When Cosmo, who may be terminally ill, tries to win back his estranged daughter by extemporizing a dreadful song at her late husband’s grave, you could practically see the suspicion shading into certainty that this was an actual funny film. The song is very poor. It continues for a long time. The laughter built. And then the film was home free.
Cosmo, a rugged, ragged man mountain with a face apparently hewn from granite, then dropped from a great height, contrasts physically with the small, smooth and round Pettifer, creating a sort of Laurel and Hardy effect. And I did actually think of the immortal L&H when I read the script. Even though this happens in a world closer to documentary reality, where the kind of flaws shown by slapstick clowns have altogether more tragic consequences. Morag’s gift for getting great performances and navigating the tonal switchbacks of Colin’s writing is much in evidence. There were tears and laughter and tears of laughter.
Here’s a clip from Morag and Colin’s previous triumph, HOME: