Peter Mullan’s third feature, NEDS, having picked up the best film award at the A-list San Sebastian Film Festival in September following its world premiere in Toronto is now garnering glowing reviews following its UK premiere at the London Film Festival on Wednesday.
Should Neds repeat or better the success of The Magdalene Sisters (coincidentally or rather in a neat bit of complementary scheduling, screening on Film 4 this week) it will confirm Mullan as both critically and commercially Scotland’s most successful director working out of Scotland. This might surprise people but the most successful ‘Scottish’ films have in fact been directed by non-Scots like Danny Boyle and Ken Loach and Scots directors’ most successful films have, arguably, not been ‘Scottish’ (See footnote).
One of an elite group of just twelve Scottish directors in the past thirty years to make three or more theatrical features, Mullan (and Lynne Ramsay whose much anticipated adaptation of We Need to Talk about Kevin is released in the new year) joins the ‘hat trick’ ranks alongside Bill Douglas, Bill Forsyth, Mike Radford, Ian Sellar, David Hayman, Gilles Mackinnon, Danny Boyle, Paul McGuigan, David MacKenzie and Richard Jobson. To date a first time feature director in Scotland has a 50% chance of making a second feature and an 18% chance of making a third – such is natural selection in the movie game. (Actually the 50% second feature rate is comparatively high).
Mullan’s second feature, The Magdalene Sisters (2002) presents a case study in the elasticity if not the elusive utility of the distinction between critical and commercial success, not something acknowledged in the generally sneering tone adopted by press commentators whenever a public funder takes a risk in what is an inherently extremely risky business. Back in 2001 when the film’s producers (Frances & Paddy Higson and Ed Guiney) were struggling to complete the film’s financing in the UK and were contemplating moving production to Ireland, Scottish Screen stepped in with an additional injection of £170k on top of the £500k it had already committed to the project. In a classic of the film-agency bashing genre and under the headline WHY ARE WE PLOUGHING SO MUCH CASH INTO MOVIE FLOPS? the Scotsman’s resident Jeremiah George Kerevan quoted (then) Scottish Screen Chairman James Lee defending the agency’s top-up investment : “Peter Mullan is a very special Scottish talent and we want to back his second feature film. His first, Orphans, was an outstanding critical success.” Kerevan commented that “The words “critical success” are code for not making any money” adding:
“The exact rationale for funding Magdalene – hardly a commercial bet, given its content – is unclear and sums up the present policy muddle over what films to support and why. Mullan’s talents both as a director and actor are proven, so the “bringing on talent” benchmark hardly applies.”
Well in this case Mr Kerevan should have placed that bet – over 2.5 million people in Europe bought tickets to see it in cinemas with another 811,000 in the US where it grossed nearly $5m in cinemas bringing its estimated world box office gross to over $20m (against a production budget of £2m). Add DVD and TV sales to that and it becomes one of the most profitable Scottish films of all time, not to mention its critical success in winning the Golden Lion at Venice, the Discovery Award at Toronto, the San Diego Critics’ Award, the European MEDIA prize and a host of other wins and nominations.
The film is notable in other respects too. Although it did well in the UK (over 443, 305 admissions) and Ireland (191,420) it did even better in France (562, 782) and Italy (760, 845). Given the storyline the figures for the latter two are, in hindsight, perhaps not so surprising given those countries’ Catholic populations but that can hardly accounts for the 131,946 in Denmark (which has a Catholic population of less than 1%) who bought a ticket, almost certainly more than did so in Scotland. This pattern of international success is by no means unique. Ken Loach’s films for example (Scottish or otherwise) routinely perform much better in France than here but other Scottish Director’s films have also resonated more abroad than at home: David MacKenzie’s Asylum was more popular in Italy than here as was Paul McQuigan’s Acid House Trilogy.
So the critical and commercial success of Magdelene Sisters is proof, once again, of William Goldman’s adage that ‘nobody knows anything’ and those who attempt to prove that adage wrong are likely, sooner or later, to end up with egg on their face.
Footnote: One film ‘Last King of Scotland’ is rather contentious in this category. If you count it as Scottish then Kevin MacDonald tops the chart, if you don’t Peter Mullan does. In my view Last King.. is a British film, albeit directed by a Scot, produced by London based company DNA with a (London-based) Scottish co-producer, Andrea Calderwood’s Slate Films. Its Scottish credentials are boosted by a small amount of filming in Scotland and a small investment by Scottish Screen, but realistically it’s a minority Scottish co-production.