George MacKay had a year to remember in 2013. He starred in the big screen version of Sunshine On Leith, which fared better at the box office than many suspected it would, and Kevin Macdonald’s How I Live Now. He also received award nods and indie kudos for his turn as Aaron in For Those In Peril, the only survivor of a tragedy at sea who is blamed and shunned by the local community because of it.
The film takes Scottish myths and tales of the sea and suggests that they still endure with those whose living is made on the ocean waves. Aaron is brought up with stories and songs of local lore and superstition, and it appears these are behind the community’s extreme reaction to his survival. At first, you think he is treated in the manner he is as he is a constant reminder of what has taken place, and because those who had lost friends and family struggle to understand why it happened to them and not him. They don’t believe he can remember nothing of what happened, and view him with a mixture of fear, hatred and contempt.
As the film’s numerous flashbacks add up, and people’s attitudes towards Aaron are clarified, it becomes clear that there is more to this story than first appears. It seems Aaron was always seen as ‘odd’ by many of those in his village, and has been protected by his mother and elder brother, Michael. Now that his brother is no longer around to step in on his behalf he is increasingly in danger from those who fear him, and those who mock him. There are scenes of bullying and fighting which are reminiscent of Shane Meadow’s masterpiece, Dead Man’s Shoes, but this shocking realism gives way to an increasingly surreal feel as those myths are revisited while Aaron’s mind appears to unravel.
Writer and director Paul Wright pulls out all the stops by using ‘real-life’ video, found footage, childhood recordings, and some memorable set pieces on land and sea. What adds to the magical realist feel is the way the film is shot. I can’t overestimate how good this film looks, and it reminded me of Scott Graham’s Shell which also came out last year. They would make a very handsome double bill of films set in and about Scotland’s highlands and islands.
The cast are excellent all round, with MacKay unrecognisable from the all singing and dancing squaddie who belts out Proclaimers’ songs around Edinburgh, and he is ably supported by Nichola Burley as Jane, one of the few villagers who offers Aaron support, friendship, comfort and camaraderie as they agree to help one another. But the standouts are two actors who were also in the aforementioned Shell, Kate Dickie and Michael Smiley. Smiley is Jane’s dad, and he is a nasty piece of work, physically attacking Aaron, warning him away from his daughter and trash talking his brother. It’s a far cry from Spaced’s Tyres O’Flaherty. Smiley has become one of the most reliable actors around, and this is another memorable role.
I’ve watched Kate Dickie on stage and screen for over 20 years now, and have never seen her give anything less than a superb performance. Here, she is Aaron and Michael’s mum, and she is pulled in two directions, grieving for her missing eldest, and worrying about her surviving child. Her karaoke version of The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face is heartbreaking, and, in what must have been a draining role to play, she never puts a foot wrong.
For Those In Peril is a terrific film, one which delivers images which stay with you long after the credits end. What starts as a tragic tale of loss and belonging slowly metamorphosises into something more odd and disturbing as Aaron becomes increasingly frantic in his search for his brother, and increasingly extreme in his actions. As we move towards a conclusion it is verging on full-on horror, with the ending as unexpected as it is terrifying, and you’ll be left bewidered yet satisfied by what you have just witnessed, so much so you may just have to go and do it all again.
Here’s the trailer: