16th September 2007
Initially I decided that I should see this film because there was a gap in my schedule and the film was the first Gaelic feature with high production values, and since I was born a Highlander, I couldn't not.
It's often these gap fillers and "almost didn't see" films that can turn out to be surprises of the festival, and this year was no exception. Seachd is a superb film filled with tons of passion and pride, and it is almost entirely in Gaelic.
Now you may not know that Gaelic was not the majority language of the Scottish people. Head for head it was Doric, but since Gaelic is the more romantic sounding and further removed from English, it seems to be the one enjoying all the focus.
I'm not complaining as I love anything that brings a sense of pride and belonging to being Scottish, and in the context of Seachd it hardly seems to matter as hearing the language on screen soon becomes like watching any other foreign language film, just closer to home.
Seachd is the story of a Highland boy and his strained relationship with his Grandfather. When he was younger a series of events starting with the death of his parents atop the Isle of Skye mountains, saw them grow apart and his boyhood idolisation of his Grandfather turn to feelings of betrayal and bitterness.
These feelings have stayed with both of them and as he has grown to adulthood he moved to the City and began a career, breaking contact with him.
Now the film opens at his bedside, he is obviously very ill, perhaps dying, and his Grandson sits, fulfilling his obligation.
However as they sit their memories return to the past and revisit the events that created the gulf between them, we start to understand them and they way they feel about each other.
If you've seen Tim Burton's Big Fish then you'll have an idea of the way this story is going, although here there’s nothing so fanciful. This is more down to earth and builds more on the relationships of the characters who are well developed from the script to the screen.
The relationship is still based on a series of tales that the adult tells the boy, but the Grandfather here tells more fables of Scottish folklore than of his own fantastical stories, and we see them play out on screen. That’s not where the similarities end either; the emotional impact of both films is very similar, although Big Fish hit me harder.
The relationship between the boy and the Grandfather is very well built through the fables that he tells. These stories make up a large part of the film but never detract from the heart which remains the relationship between the Grandfather and the boy and how the feelings from the death of his parents build up this resentment within him.
The stories are well created and entertaining, not just distractions or vehicles to bring across some point in the film, and serve as short stories on their own. For the most part they are serious and convey some point that the Grandfather is trying to make to the children, often with a hint of Scottish history added in, for instance the tale of the Highland clearances. One story though changes the tone of the film, and when it first begins it feels out of place.
The Grandfather tells a tale about a Scotsman stranded on an island alone who one day is joined by a shipwrecked Spaniard. With him he brings a feast of potatoes and black pudding, and the story leads to a few hilarious jibes against the Scottish way of life, one of the only places where clichés are used. I loved the chip shop moment.
It is something refreshing as well, a Scottish film about Scotland that doesn’t have clichés of perceived Scottish life throughout. It could be said that the film goes too far out of its way to avoid these clichés when we see the ceilidh scene, a ceilidh with no tartan in sight.
Still I think this is one of the films strengths, because it concentrates on great characters and relationships, it just happens to be in Gaelic and filled with some of the most stunning scenery you can imagine.
It is beautifully filmed, filled with amazing scenery and backdrops that reminded me why I love the country I was born and live in so much. It is a gorgeous country that looks amazing on film and was captured wonderfully and seamlessly woven into the story as a character itself.
Overall the film had two turning points, and at both times I felt a slight surprise at the change of direction which I hadn’t expected. It turns from being the film I expected to something a little more, and a little different, and both changes were strong story choices.
The script is very good, with the actors who play the Grandfather and boy providing great performances. In fact the whole cast is good, and when you start out expecting a cast of Gaelic speaking Scottish actors to be made from a small slice of Scottish television actors, you end up surprised.
For a start I didn’t recognise any from Scottish television, and none of them give a television performance. Their delivery and emotion is natural and strong, and they all feel like real feature actors. I was impressed, particularly by Aonghas Padruig Caimbeul, who played the Grandfather, and Padruig Moireasdan who played young Aonhgas.
There was one moment where I thought all could be lost. As the boy is driving back to Glasgow he sees characters from the tales his Grandfather had told him, as vividly as we had seen them on film, in the woods and fields to his side.
To me this felt like some internal moment of recognition or realisation, except it was shown too vividly, too plainly in view, and altogether too real. With the subtle handling of some of the questions regarding the reality of these tales and of his Grandfather, it felt like this moment was too real, and was like a sledgehammer slamming home a moment to the audience.
However the film recovers quickly from this and returns back to the relationship between the Grandfather and the boy and the past concerning the death of the parents.
The ending, and in fact the final sequences leading up to the ending, are very good without anything too predictable or twee. Once again it avoids clichés and expected endings and keeps in focus the main plot and the characters.
The film is moving and really made me proud to be a Highlander and Scottish, living in this gorgeous country. It is a wonderful, warm and personal story with some superb performances and I hope there are many more of these films to come from Scotland.
However make no mistake, this isn't one of these films that's for Scottish people only, much like The Flying Scotsman (Filmstalker review) this is a world contending feature film, and in the case of Seachd it's a superb foreign film, not just for Scottish consumption.
by Richard Bunton