Wednesday, October 17, 2012


2010, UK, directed by Morag McKinnon

Though its mordant humour is in a category of its own, Donkeys recalled to mind a couple of Irish films, Adam and Paul and Kings: the central pair here, a hopeless twosome played by James Cosmo and Brian Pettifer (one of the great faces of the modern British cinema), reminded me of a slightly more functional version of the co-dependents at the heart of those films. In all cases, these are men whose lives have gone off the tracks, filled with disappointments, ruined relationships, and self-loathing, but McKinnon grants her characters a certain self-aware dignity, and treats their stories with an often wicked humour, as well as a sharp visual style (the shot above, which she holds until after Cosmo's departure, is one of my favourites).

She manages remarkable transitions so adeptly that a laugh and a gasp of horror can co-exist almost in the same breath -- indeed, they're often appropriately paired reactions, so inept are the efforts of Cosmo, in particular, to restore order to a messy life. Although there's a ray of redemption in the air over the Barra markets as the film comes to a close, there's never a hint of sentimentality in McKinnon's portraits, and that lends these characters striking verisimilitude, with Cosmo's utterly unself-conscious performance -- fat stomach and unshaven jowls -- only enhancing the sense of people plucked from the Glasgow streets, filled with piss, vinegar and a way with a finely-wrought line.

For all the film's apparently low-key vibe, McKinnon also achieves something of the pace of farce in certain sequences -- I'd initially popped the disc in intending just to verify it was working, and before I knew it the film was over. It hooks you with story, and keeps you with characters, their stories carefully rhythmed to align in a sequence of squirming inglory before the film splinters in an entirely new direction that gives new meaning to the term gallows humour.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States