TIFF 2013 Review: SUNSHINE ON LEITH Supplies Musical Warmth

Jason Gorber, Featured Critic
What would happen if Ken Loach or Mike Leigh made a musical? You know, cast a bunch of hardscrabble Brits in a family drama, add a bit of grit and friction, and set it all within the context of a jukebox musical? 

It shouldn't work at all, yet Dexter Fletcher's Sunshine on Leith manages, almost preposterously, to merge the British cinematic tradition of bleak reality within the context of a warm musical. The soundtrack to the film is provided by the Proclaimers, their tunes a perfect mix of the melancholic and the hopeful, helping shape this charming film.

Because this is a Scotch musical sung in full brogue, some have compared it to the Gaelic tale of the The Commitments. This, of course, is foolish - these films couldn't be more different in both style and execution, each doing its own thing. If anything, The Commitments isn't situated like a true musical, while Sunshine does conform to the "breaking out into song" aspect of the genre that some may still find off-putting. I'd recommend the suspending disbelief and simply losing oneself in the fun of the piece, enjoying the collision between the musical moments and the scripted dialogue.

The cast does well with these shifts in tonality, set up with a particularly effective scene inside an armoured personnel carrier. The film doesn't need any Luhrmann-like theatrics to make the music integrate into the plot, and for the most part doesn't feel nearly as forced as other similar outings in which disparate songs are strung together to form a narrative.

The film stars Peter Mullan, one of the finer actors working today, his craggy voice and expressive eyes perfect for his role. Jane Horrocks, who stunned me years ago at TIFF 1998 with the criminally underloved Little Voice, provides the right amount of pathos in her role. The rest of the cast have decent voices and fine acting chops, with the lovely Antonia Thomas providing the most rich vocal performance of the lot.

The tunes themselves are as infectious as always, with the international hit "I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)" wisely set as the finale. Other tunes such as "Letter From America" are a bit heavy handed, while "I'm Gonna Get Married" is staged in quite a playful way. The songs are drawn from more than the titular record, as "Over and Done With" from their record "This Is The Story" provides one of the film's most ear-wormy scenes.

Yes, things play out in exactly the way you expect them to, but both the setting and the storyline seem to earn their moments of eventual elation. If the voices aren't all of a West End caliber, they're songs sung with conviction.

Mid-festival, it's easy to get sucked into film after film that's dour and miserable, it's a delightfully refreshing feeling at times to leave a theatre whistling a jaunty tune. Days later, I still have a couple of the tracks ringing around my head, and while it's not exactly treading untilled ground, Sunshine On Leith certainly provides enough moments of warmth to warrant your time.
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