Take 2: Sunshine on Leith
My first watch of Sunshine on Leith (Dexter Fletcher, 2013) was somewhat marred by a faulty DVD player. Just as the film reached its climactic dance sequence, soundtracked to the legendary song that the movie makes us wait until the very end for, the picture cut out, killing the atmosphere dead and ruining the conclusion, meaning I never actually saw the joyous final freeze-framed shot. This time around, my viewing experience ran much more smoothly, though my opinion on the film remains largely unchanged: it is solid gold candy floss; feel-good fluff that will uplift you even as you half-cringe at its cheesiness.
This time around, I found myself in need of a quintessentially Scottish movie to close out an evening of pandemically muted Burns Night celebrations, and Sunshine on Leith was the agreed-upon choice. Indeed, it fit the bill perfectly: undeniably Scottish, and featuring the poetry of The Proclaimers with which to wash down our whisky. The film is primarily about relationships, and how love can both blossom and wane in different circumstances. Davy (George MacKay) and Ally (Kevin Guthrie) are serving soldiers who return home to Edinburgh after their convoy hits a land mine. Ally is in a relationship with Davy’s sister Liz (Freya Mavor), while Davy himself soon pairs up with Liz’s colleague Yvonne (Antonia Thomas). And adding a third relationship into the tumultuous mix are Liz and Davy’s parents, Jean (Jane Horrocks) and Rab (Peter Mullan), the latter of whom harbours a secret that could split the family apart. As you might predict, these three relationships hit upon highs and lows throughout the fairly standard plot points of the film, though Fletcher does add a neat mirrored nature to proceedings, making the narrative symmetrical in a way that feels satisfying and suggests that where some doors close, others open. As a director he is the perfect choice for this movie, bringing his mastery of the feel-good which he would later display in Eddie the Eagle (2015) and Rocketman (2019), and transposing it onto a small-town Scottish musical. In fact, I’d even go as far as to say, Fletcher is the best at this sort of movie out of any director currently working, and very few others could have pulled the quirks of Sunshine on Leith together as well as he does.
Of course, this style of filmmaking rests heavily on emotive, larger-than-life performance, and the cast deliver this with aplomb. Horrocks, Mullan and Guthrie strike all the right notes with their performances, being suitably fun when its needed, and serious when the plot demands it, but it is MacKay who is the real stand-out here. He very much carries the heart of the film on his shoulders, and demonstrates why he is a star in the making, with his more recent lead roles in 1917 (Sam Mendes, 2019) and True History of the Kelly Gang (Justin Kurzel, 2019), just further steps on his road to stardom. That is, if he stops getting typecast as a soldier-type and begins to spread his wings and show greater range. Indeed, in Sunshine on Leith, his soldiering is almost incidental. Fletcher’s film touches on darker topics like the psychological and physical damage of war and being a frontline healthcare worker – indeed lost limbs and heart attacks are central to its plot – and yet they remain window dressing. The film chooses not to dig too deep into these traumas, instead brushing over them before swiftly moving on to happier resolutions. It could be called a failure to take important topics seriously, but I would prefer to argue that it is simply a factor of the film Fletcher is trying to make here: it is optimistic and heartening, rather than thoughtful and sombre.
You might not think The Proclaimers are an obvious choice for a musical, and, whilst their songs are short and quite personal, Sunshine on Leith makes it work. In fact, it does what all great jukebox musicals do and makes me want to go back and listen to their songs more and more, to discover the complexities I have missed in the past. What’s more, Sunshine on Leith epitomises the ‘it will make you laugh and it will make you cry’ format, and it may even have you up singing and dancing by its finale (so long as your DVD works properly). It is a film that can be returned to again and again – a simple, easy watch glistening with, well, sunshine.
At time of writing, Sunshine on Leith is unavailable on any of the major streaming platforms. You’ll just have to add it to your DVD collection!