Donkeys is an oddity of a film, and all the better for it. It was originally proposed as a sequel to Andrea Arnold’s Red Road, but although the films share writers, and indeed many characters, the link between the two ends up appearing rather tenuous and a little confusing, the result of a difficult production which you can read all about here.
It was intended as the second part of what was named the ‘Advance Party’ trilogy, a series of collaborations between Scotland’s Sigma Films and Denmark’s Zentropa, but I would say that it is best watched by putting all your thoughts on Red Road to one side. Donkeys is a film that stands alone.
James Cosmo is Alfred, a man in his 60s whose dreams of going to live the final years of his life in Spain are put into stark perspective by a night spent in hospital. Sudden reflection on his life leads him to want to tie some loose ends together and build bridges. He is estranged from his daughter Jackie, and therefor his young granddaughter as well. We are not sure what he has done to deserve this treatment, although it is clear it is something terrible, but as we get to know Alfred we can believe that he has been, and still is, capable of just about anything. Age has not withered him.
Kate Dickie plays his daughter Jackie. Dickie is one of Scotland’s most reliable screen presences, someone who finally seems to be getting the success she deserves. Jackie meets her next door neighbour’s son, Stevie, played by Martin Compston, and this is where the film becomes confusing for regular film fans. The two appear to be playing the same characters from Red Road, but neither recognise each other, even though the time they met was life changing for both. It soon becomes clear that these are not exactly the same characters, so the question is why even allude to that? I know that there was the idea to keep the same characters and actors in all three films, but I don’t understand the point in this case? It doesn’t spoil the film, it’s far too good for that, but I can’t pretend it is only a small matter.
Brian Pettifer is also superb as Alfred’s wingman and only friend, at least until Alfred’s behaviour pushes him too far as well. Pettifer is another Scottish acting legend who many may know best in recent years for drinking with Rab C and Jack and Victor, but who has appeared in some truly great movies including Amadeus, Britannia Hospital, O Lucky Man as well as many Dickens’ adaptations. In Donkeys he is a loyal, if guileless, friend whose betrayal by Alfred shows the audience that this may be a man trying to gain redemption, but who believes that cheating, lying and acting dishonestly are the best ways to achieve his end. He’ll do anything to avoid admitting the truth, to save himself from facing his own guilt as much as helping anyone else. It is this that makes Alfred such a believable character. He cares for others yet has always cared for himself more, and he doesn’t know how to change that.
The film that it most reminds me of is Wilbur Wants To Kill Himself , another Danish/Scottish collaboration, which is also about love, life and death. This comparison makes sense then you discover that writer Lone Sherfig had a hand in writing both films, as well as Red Road, (although writing credits for Donkeys are shared with Colin McLaren, to whom a lot of the credit must go). Like Wilbur…, Donkeys features comedy that is pitch black, but they are also unexpectedly thought provoking and emotional. Critics might focus on Donkeys being another film set in a grim and gritty Glasgow, but they are missing the humanity that is at the film’s core.
We are used to characters acting in certain ways in movies; programmed to expect when they will forgive, when a character will remain loyal, when another will act with dignity. By refusing to conform to movie stereotypes and expectations the laughs in Donkeys are more poignant and the emotion all the more visceral. It is here that the central performances work so well, with Cosmo particularly outstanding. It’s difficult to imagine a man of such size conveying emotion so subtly, but he manages to do so. Donkeys is a movie which gets close to reflecting real life, so much so that some may find it uncomfortable viewing. But if you do, I’d take a while to ask yourself why.
Here’s the trailer, but I’ll warn you. It gives away more of the film than I would have liked:
Donkeys deserves to find a wider audience on DVD. It’s thoughtfully cast, beautifully acted and filmed, with a fabulous script which featuring characters who are complex enough to be completely believable. That may sound like the least you expect from a film, but consider those you’ve seen recently and you’ll realise how rare that is. It’s one of the best films made in Scotland in the last five years, and it proves that someone should have made James Cosmo the leading man years ago.