It’s been a recent theme that many of the films featured on these pages had only the briefest of visits to cinemas before being shelved. This week’s choice didn’t even make it that far. Apparently the BBFC didn’t even think it worth giving it an age certification. But the most baffling aspect of this neglect is that the film in question, simply called Aberdeen, is really rather good.

It has plenty of dodgy moments, not least of which is a frankly bizarre ‘sod it’ attitude to setting and place. Glasgow doubles for at least 5 different places including London, Liverpool and Edinburgh. If you are going to do this, understandable on a low budget film, don’t include some of the most famous landmarks of said city in shot. Yes, I know I’m sensitive to this as it’s my city, but when you drive over the Clyde, then see the Kelvin Grove Museum and Art Galleries, you have to expect that many viewers will notice something is afoot.

But that’s perhaps forgivable. Unfortunately the script in places is really poor and this threatens to derail the film at times. What prevents this are the performances of the four central actors who are superb. You would probably expect this from Stellan Skarsgard, Charlotte Rampling, Lena Headey and Ian Hart, but I can’t overstate this enough; they don’t just save this film from being bad, they lift it to become something that is a little bit special.

Skarsgard and Headey are estranged father and daughter Tomas and Kaisa who are trying to get to the titular city in time to speak to the terminally ill Rampling. Their road journey is one which is fraught with problems from the off. Tomas is a chronic alcoholic and Kaisa has a more than healthy coke habit, and their respective addictions only fuel a mutual contempt and distrust. Both actors are on top form. Skarsgard plays alcoholic Tomas with none of the ‘show’ that Nicholas Cage brought to Leaving Las Vegas. His kindness, and love for his daughter, which appears from time to time, is all the more realistic for the mood swings and odd behaviour in the rest of the film. This is a man drowning, not waving.

On this form Headey should have had a much more impressive career than she has had (Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles, 300 and St Trinians are recent ‘highlights’). Kaisa is the living definition of Larkin’s claim in This Be The Verse that “They fuck you up, your Mum and Dad”, and her behaviour should be ridiculously off putting, but there is something so vulnerable and haunted about Kaisa you remain sympathetic to her, even when you are cringing for her. The little girl that has been abandoned and betrayed by her parents is still evident, and Headey plays someone who herself is playing at being a grown up. It’s a breathtaking performance.

Charlotte Rampling is only on screen for around 10 mins, but is ethereal as this dysfunctional family’s mother. She has accepted her fate and is simply waiting to see those closest to her together one last time. The film hints that her behaviour in the past has been as terrible as her husband’s and daughter’s. If you consider Rampling’s career you’ll realise that she seems incapable of giving a bad performance, even in bestial ‘classic’ Max, Mon Amour, probably the weirdest film I have ever seen. Many actors plead with the audience to like them, or admire them.You are aware that they’re showing off. With Rampling you always get the feeling that she couldn’t care less what people think about her or her acting, and she is all the better for it.

Iain Hart is one of my favourite actors. He can do it all, and sometimes is called upon to be a little OTT, as in David Kane’s This Year’s Love (a heartbreaking performance) or short lived American TV series Dirt. Here he keeps it understated as truck driver Clive who becomes involved in Tomas and Kaisa’s lives. Few people do ‘decent’ like Hart, and he knows to reign it in in the face of Skarsgard and Headey’s grandstanding. His relationship with Kaisa could have been a terrible cliché but in these actors hands it is utterly believable. That’s what makes Aberdeen special; you believe in these people. Here’s the trailer:

Aberdeen was one of quite a few films made in Scotland around the turn of the century that were Scottish/Scandinavian collaborations. Others include Red Road, Breaking the Waves and, a film that has finally been released after being in the very definition of development hell, Donkeys. There is certainly a Scandinavian feel to Aberdeen. The scenes driving through Norway are beautifully evocative, capturing the light and cold of a Scandinavian dusk. The despair of the characters is very Bergmanesque, and there are echoes of Lars Von Trier, although at his most restrained.

If you really want to pick holes in Aberdeen there are plenty to find, many things that when thought about simply don’t make sense. But I would suggest leaving your cyniscsim aside, sit back, and find yourself caring for characters who in all reality should be repulsive. This is a masterclass in acting without showing the audience the wires. Skarsgard and Headey abandon all ego to give two raw performances that don’t make for easy viewing at times, but which make the final scenes quite beautiful. Aberdeen is worth tracking down despite all its evident flaws. It has an emotional impact that is quite unexpected and is one of the most surprising Scottish films of the last 15 years.

Alistair

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Further thoughts can be found at scotswhayhae.

Alistair’s latest thoughts on Scottish books appear on the first Monday of every month.