Star rating: ****
The first feature film in Gaelic to receive mainstream distribution, Seachd premiered at the 61st Edinburgh International Film Festival. It's fair to warn you of that right away, because that fact is at once one of its greatest strengths, and, unfortunately, its biggest weakness.
Aonghos, a young professional in Glasgow, visits his Grandfather in hospital, and remembers. This isn't the beginning of the story.
Seachd starts with an accident on a mountain, an incident that kills the parents of young Aonghas, admirably portrayed as a child in two tongues by Padruig Moireasdan. He, and his two siblings, go to live with his grandfather, another Aonghas, and his aging Grandmother.
The film moves in time, and widely among the highlands and islands of Scotland, as the younger Aonghas recalls his childhood and his grandfather's stories. There are many of them, of a various nature, all with important lessons for the children.
Seachd could be called magical realist, in that there are magics, and it has the gritty feel of kitchen sink drama. After all, these are orphans, raised by their grandparents, and even on an island like Skye the fact that they are raised in Gaelic separates them from others. Aonghas is an angry young man, and even as an adult Coll Domhnallach's performance has a sullen, brooding intensity.
Despite the involvement of BBC Alba, Seachd lacks the feel of tokenism that benights most Gaelic television. This is a crisply professional production, beautifully shot. The landscapes of Scotland are breathtakingly presented, and across Aonghas the elder's stories there's a wide variety of tones. There's a lucky Spaniard, in a delightfully comic turn from Vidal Sancho, a harsh tale of the Highland Clearances with both kinds of magicians, and others. These are stories that bear repeating, but you deserve to hear them for the first time from a master storyteller.
Aonghas Padruig Caimbeul is that storyteller, and his presence fills the screen with a warmth and sincerity that needs no translation. Despite being in Gaelic and English, and Spanish, and with some Scots in as well, Seachd is crisply subtitled.
It's an astonishing production. The score is a little heavy handed, but one can forgive it when the cinematography is so lush. This is a gorgeous exercise in filmmaking, with subtle shifts in tone as it moves from genre to genre with Aonghas' stories. It's not perfect, with a handful of anachronisms appearing in the childhood of the younger Aonghas, but if one treats them as the haziness that results from young memory they can be readily overlooked.
Harder to avoid is the fact that it's in Gaelic. This is a brilliant film, but for many the language barrier is going to be insurmountable. Many have noted this film's similarity to Tim Burton's Big Fish, but while Seachd treads similar ground it does so with a touch that is in many ways lighter.
To avoid this film because it is subtitled is to miss out on an opportunity to witness some amazing talent at work.
by Andrew Robertson