Sunshine on Leith: Toronto Review

Peter Mullan
The corn is thicker than the Scottish brogues, but plenty of Proclaimers fans won't mind.

Director Dexter Fletcher brings to the screen this stage musical built around songs by Scottish sibling duo The Proclaimers.

TORONTO – Who could resist what appears to be half the population of Edinburgh gathering out front of the Scottish National Gallery to perform The Proclaimers’ rousing declaration of love, “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles),” as a flash mob-style production number? Such moments of ebullient joy explode throughout Dexter Fletcher’s film of the local stage hit Sunshine on Leith. Shamelessly contrived in the manner of most jukebox musicals, and more than a wee bit precious, the movie has little use for emotional shadings as it flogs its feel-good charms. But given the hordes that sat through Mamma Mia! without cringing, that might not be a deterrent.

Of course, The Proclaimers are not Abba and there’s no cavorting Meryl Streep here. But the songs of identical twins Craig and Charlie Reid have more going for them than just catchy pop hooks. Becoming The Proclaimers in 1983 after cutting their teeth in high school punk bands, the Reid brothers built their initial following playing pubs. Those roots are evoked in screenwriter Stephen Greenhorn’s adaptation of his 2007 homegrown stage musical, created for Dundee Repertory Theatre. The songs thrum with proud national identity and raw feeling, be it plaintive or euphoric, which makes it disappointing that too many of them here are coated in generic sentiment.

The film starts strongly, with a combat-zone scene in Afghanistan during which U.K. soldiers in an armored vehicle face possible death while singing a stirring a cappella version of “Sky Takes the Soul.” That visceral opening jumps to Edinburgh two months later, where squadron chums Davy (George Mackay) and Ally (Kevin Guthrie) have returned from active duty, ready to reclaim their lives. The abrupt shift from claustrophobic mortality to freedom and possibility is captured as the two map out their path “from misery to happiness” in one of the band’s biggest hits, “I’m On My Way.”

This disarming introduction shows director Fletcher comfortably embracing the old-fashioned notion of characters bursting into song within a naturalistic frame. It also sets the emotional stakes high for Davy and Ally, given the experience recently behind them and the fact that one of their mates wasn’t so lucky. But as the returned soldiers reintegrate into civilian life, much of that edge evaporates from the film, making way for familiar romantic situations.

Ally dives headfirst back into his relationship with Davy’s sister Liz (Freya Mavor), who sets up her brother with her English best friend and fellow nurse Yvonne (Antonia Thomas). Alongside this quartet are Davy and Liz’s parents, Rab (Peter Mullan) and Jean (Jane Horrocks), approaching their 25th wedding anniversary in blissful harmony until a discovery from Rab’s past rocks the boat.

Greenhorn breathes some credibility into Liz’s uncertainty about committing full-steam-ahead with Ally, contrasting his urgent desire to build a home and family with her itch to broaden her horizons. But the conflicts that stretch out the film’s midsection mostly feel manufactured, particularly for Yvonne and Davy. While the naturalness of the four young actors compensates, the writing is thin.

It’s dispiriting to watch a gifted actor like Mullan reduced to playing clichés, and as people who squirmed through Little Voice will recall, a smidgen of Horrocks’ winsomeness goes a long way. (I prefer her in the lunatic mode of Bubble on Absolutely Fabulous.) She does, however, make touching work of the lovely title song, its unadorned expression of sorrow, regret and gratitude resonating as Jean sings by a hospital bedside.

Generally, the intimate numbers like “Sunshine on Leith” or “Letter From America” are more effective than the strained exuberance of the expansive song treatments, with the happy exception of “500 Miles.” Dance elements have a pleasing rough-edged scrappiness to them, but jolly pub sing-alongs like “Over and Done With” and “Let’s Get Married,” or “Should Have Been Loved,” led by a mugging Jason Flemyng, made me wince.

That’s not to say there won’t be plenty of audiences eager to check their cynicism at the door and get on board with the unabashedly romantic spirit. But the musical could have used more of the restraint that’s shown in the use of beautiful instrumental versions of Proclaimers songs as underscoring. As for the crisp, clean visuals of pristine city architecture under pastel skies, Sunshine on Leith could double as a Scottish tourist board commercial.

A curious footnote: Fletcher, whose first feature as director was the well-received 2011 crime drama Wild Bill, began his career as a child actor in 1976 in another idiosyncratic U.K. musical, Alan Parker’s Bugsy Malone.

Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentation)

Cast: Peter Mullan, Jane Horrocks, George MacKay, Freya Mavor, Kevin Guthrie, Antonia Thomas, Jason Flemyng, Paul Brannigan, Sara Vickers

Production companies: DNA Films, Black Camel Pictures

Director: Dexter Fletcher

Screenwriter: Stephen Greenhorn, based on his stage musical

Producers: Andrew Macdonald, Allon Reich, Arabella Page Croft, Kieran Parker

Executive producers: Nigel Green, Trevor Green

Director of photography: George Richmond

Production designer: Mike Gunn

Music: The Proclaimers

Costume designer: Anne Robbins

Editor: Stuart Gazzard

Music director: Paul Englishby

Choreographer: Rosie Kay

Sales: Focus Features International

No rating, 99 minutes.