The fact that BLACKBIRD is a film about Scottish heritage and identity, made by an Edinburgh film-maker, gives it immediate currency in the climate of referendum. Set in the remote Machars of Dumfries and Galloway, it’s a beautifully shot drama about Scottish folk traditions and values, about listening and remembering. The older members of the village are dying off, and the kids are inevitably drawn away to Glasgow or even further afield. For a moment it seems that only Ruadhan, a troubled young man played by Andrew Rothney, is concerned with preserving the past – rather than getting a job, or worrying about his personal future as a folk singer.
The fish are dead on the beach, and the old ways are slipping away. The passing on of stories and song from the old folk becomes ever more urgent. The impressive performances of the village folk elders, headed by the village’s cultural figurehead Alec (played by well-known Gaelic performer and TV personality, Norman Maclean), supported by Sheila Stewart and Margaret Bennett, bring voice and substance to the film. The poignant Celtic ballads that infuse the soundtrack evoke a mood of warmth and nostalgia; and visual metaphors, such as the crumbling stone cottage inhabited by a ghost, conjure the magic of the old ways. Cinematographer John Craine’s treatment of the coastal and rural landscape is beautiful, bringing the natural beauty of the place into prominent focus.
The fish are dead on the beach, and the old ways are slipping away.
As Alec’s health declines, Ruadhan’s attempts to preserve the songs of the elders get more desperate. It might have been more interesting to characterise Ruadhan as an outsider, but Chambers tries too hard to make him ‘quirky’, (he lives in a boat on a field and collects shells); and he becomes a frustratingly tiresome screen presence. The pace of the plot matches the low-key mood, but by the time Ruadhan is romantically involved with Amy, played by Scarlett Mack, the characterisations of both are unconvincing and under developed.
The film loses its way half way through. Rothney plays the wide-eyed character of Ruadhan as part-simpleton, part delicate soul, and Mack plays a spirited lass, but neither show any real ‘personality’. Even so, Maclean and the supporting cast bring credibility to the film. BLACKBIRD is a film with admirable qualities and charm, but its artistic style over substance is a frustrating payoff for the audience.