Review: Sunshine on Leith

Any Mamma Mia! fans out there?

Those who haven’t stopped reading are directed to the indefatigably upbeat musical concoction Sunshine on Leith, which rips a page out of the big-screen adaptation of the ABBA musical by deploying the music of Scottish “500 miles” tunesmiths The Proclaimers (siblings Charlie and Craig Reed) to tell a conventional yet peppy story of generational love and togetherness against the bustling backdrop of urban Edinburgh.

The film is even based on a musical as well, the original having been premiered in 2007 and toured vigorously ever since. Clearly the producers saw an opportunity in the vein of the ABBA arc, and whilst they haven’t completely replicated the goofy, star-studded charm of Phyllida Lloyd’s 2008 global smash, they’ve learned enough of the lessons—particularly how to people the cast with fresh-faced, attractive young talent anchored by a few vets—to create a critical and commercial hit of their own.

In the fresh-scrubbed Scottish city, boyhood mates Davy (George MacKay) and Ally (Kevin Guthrie) have just returned home after serving in Afghanistan. As the latter tries to persuade his girlfriend, Davy’s sister Liz (Freya Mavor) to settle down, the former is set up with Liz’ Brit hospital workmate Yvonne (Antonia Thomas).

Yet with age comes more challenges, as evidenced by the sibling’s parents Rab (Peter Mullan) and Jean (Jane Horrocks). On the eve of their 25th anniversary, Rab is informed he has a grown daughter from a long-ago fling, whilst Jean grapples with medical issues.

It seems everyone has a problem or gets their wires crossed, which is why it’s up to love and music to once again save the day.

Actor-turned-director Dexter Fletcher and his director of photography George Richmond (son of the great Anthony Richmond, who shot many of Nicolas Roeg’s best films, here making his D.P. debut) opt for much smoother cinematography than Haris Zambarloukos’ jumpy, often hand-held approach to Mamma Mia!, and that choice suits the sunnier material just fine (one British critic has more astutely compared Sunshine on Leight to Jacques Demy’s 1964 musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which sounds about right).

The younger players are capable and inoffensive, whilst veteran Horrocks is in full-on cutesy mode. And yes, for those who may be wondering and/or dreading the question, Mullan does in fact sing—a couple of times, actually, and quite well. Film fans who follow such things may be curious to see this for incongruity of that alone.

Whilst Demy’s film may get a pass because it is old and French, there are people who despise the whole Mamma Mia! kind of approach with a vengeance bordering on the psychotic. Needless to say, Sunshine on Leith is not for them. The film is for those who believe it is entirely natural for people to break out in song as they walk down the street, and that happy endings are the very best kind. To give the film its well-earned due, Sunshine on Leith delivers on its promises. And that, as any of the four members of ABBA can tell you, is an achievement you can take to the bank.

Originally published on SBS Online

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