You know how the phrase ‘feelgood movie’ usually makes most sane individuals want to run screaming from the cinema before the trailers are over? Not this time. Sunshine on Leith, a new film musical built, unlikely as it may seem, around the songs of The Proclaimers, is that rare cinematic achievement: an unabashedly feelgood entertainment that doesn’t make you want to set fire to your own eyeballs while jamming steak knives into your ears. In fact, it’s better than that. Not only will it not make you want to self-harm, it might actually even send you out of the cinema – at the end of the film, not the beginning – bathed in sunshine. Given how often the sun shines in Edinburgh, where the film is set, that’s something worth celebrating.
On paper, true, it looks unpromising, although it’s based on a successful stage show (originally presented at Dundee Rep in 2007). And of course, since it’s a jukebox musical, the plot is strung together from a set of vague suggestions from the song lyrics, which shouldn’t help either. Since we’re dealing with The Proclaimers, you’ve probably guessed in advance that someone in the film will be moving abroad so that they can send a Letter From America, that a pair of young Scotsmen will be central to the plot, that someone will be on their way from misery to happiness (aha aha aha), that the cast of characters will include someone called Jean, that there’ll be a (sung) marriage proposal, and that someone will be told they Should Have Been Loved. You would also, faced with the prospect of a Proclaimers musical, probably want to put money on the finale being I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles).
It’s not giving anything at all away to reveal that in Stephen Greenhorn’s screenplay, every last one of those predictions comes true. The plot, such as it is, is a sticky mess of Family Drama clichés mixed with boy-meets-girl clichés, plopped down in the middle of the most picture-postcard version of Edinburgh you could possibly imagine. There’s a long-lost daughter, a health crisis, a marriage possibly going off the rails, young love gone wrong, and a whole long list of other plot twists pulled apparently at random from pretty much any early-evening ITV1 drama made at any time during the past thirty years. And it doesn’t matter in the slightest, because this film grabs you in the opening minute and doesn’t let you go.
The short prologue, in fact, sends a clear signal that you’re not in for a hundred-minute cheeseball of a movie: we aren’t in Edinburgh, we’re in Afghanistan, in the back of an armoured personnel carrier that’s one of a convoy of vehicles carrying troops back to base. The convoy moves slowly down the road as the soldiers inside sing Sky Takes the Soul. It’s a stark, powerful opening, and it clearly signals that not everything that follows is quite as fluffy as it looks. The plot follows Ally and Davy, two of the soldiers in that battle bus, as they return home to Edinburgh and try to build a new life following their discharge from the army. Some of their colleagues have been maimed,and some have been killed; their own choices seem limited to working in a call-centre or going back to a place where their lives could be ended at any moment.
And yet, paradoxically, it’s an incredibly charming film. Part of the credit for that goes to Edinburgh itself – as lovingly filmed by George Richmond under the very assured direction of Dexter Fletcher, it looks, here, like a truly enchanted, enchanting city. And more of the credit must go to the songs: divorced from the Reid Brothers’ own rather idiosyncratic performance style, they emerge as not only durable, but beautiful. There’s a flinty, unsentimental poetry to these songs, and an emotional depth that sneaks up on you – but at the same time, this music is fun, and very nearly impossible to resist. It doesn’t matter that the lyrics sometimes have only a tenuous connection to the plot – you can’t help but be carried along for the ride.
The songs are matched, too, by pitch-perfect performances right across the cast. No, not everybody here is a technically perfect singer – Peter Mullan, as you’d expect, sounds like Tom Waits, if Tom Waits had been buried in a pit of gravel and razor blades for the last ten years – but the somewhat artless singing style really suits this music. Kevin Guthrie and George MacKay find the perfect mix of gravity and goofiness as Ally and Davy, and Freya Mavor and Antonia Thomas are absolutely delightful as their girlfriends. Mullan – so often seen playing criminals or thugs – is perfect, rough singing and all, and the supporting performances – including Jason Flemyng as a dour curator who, two-thirds of the way into the film, gets to gyrate through the corridors of the Scottish National Gallery giving a hip-swivelling performance of ‘Should Have Been Loved’ that may, judging by the way he throws himself into it, be the most fun any actor has ever had on a film set – are absolutely spot-on. Towering above them all is Jane Horrocks as Davy’s mum Jean. Without a strong director, Horrocks’s work can be overly cutesy; here, she’s funny when she needs to be, but she approaches the role with enormous restraint, and it pays off in spades. The hospital scene in which she gives a quiet, unshowy rendition of the beautiful title song is the film’s emotional peak (not to mention one of the very best things she’s ever done). It’s a lovely, genuinely moving moment in a film that could easily have come across as painfully contrived.
Fletcher, for his part, does an enormously confident job of negotiating the tricky shifts from speech to song and back again, and never lets the pace drop, and the result is a taut 100-minute film that picks you up on a wave of energy and never lets you go until the closing credits roll. Of all the movie musicals made over the past decade or so, from Chicago to Phantom to Rent to Mamma Mia to Hairspray to Les Mis, this one is possibly the most purely entertaining. Fletcher and his cast and crew simply never put a foot wrong; by the time that finale rolls around – yes, I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles), performed on the plaza outside the Scottish National Gallery by MacKay and Thomas along with, apparently, everybody else who was in Edinburgh that day, you’ll possibly have shed a tear, and you’ll almost certainly have a great big goofy grin all over your face.
One warning: it will be months, probably, before you get that song out of your head afterwards. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing.