One of the many hidden gems at this year’s Glasgow Film Festival turned out to be Island, a film based on Jane Rogers’ novel of the same name, and directed by Brek Taylor and Elizabeth Mitchell. I had no idea of what I was about to see bar the brief blurb on the website. Set almost entirely on the Isle of Mull, it is basically a three-hander between the lead actors

It is quite breathtaking in places. It reminds me of some of David Mackenzie’s best work, particularly Young Adam and Hallam Foe (and whose latest film You Instead should be one of this festival’s highlights),  the films of Lynne Ramsay, Guillermo Del Toro’s more considered movies, and the pop video and film director Tim Pope; I’m thinking specifically of his work with The Cure and Talk Talk. It’s the cinematography that is the star of the show and prompts such comparisons. The way the camera catches Mull’s terrible beauty. The close ups of beetles and worms, the way the changes in the weather are captured; it matches the fairy tales and myths that are referred to throughout. You can feel the landscape through the screen, the awe inspiring and the dangerous, and it not only fits the unfolding story, but allows the uneasy feel of the film to remain constant throughout

The three lead actors are superb. You would expect nothing less from Janet McTeer, a stalwart of stage and screen in this country for the past 20 odd years. She plays single mother Phyllis Lovage, who has escaped her previous life to live on Mull, and when we first meet her she is impossibly imposing, but slowly her vulnerability is exposed as her weaknesses are ruthlessly probed. Her opponent in the film is portrayed by Natalie Press, who you may recognise as April from 2006’s Red Road (a film that I can’t believe I haven’t looked at yet) and 2004’s underrated My Summer of Love. In Island she is Nicky Black, and is so reminiscent of a young Sissy Spacek that it is quite spooky to begin with, but you soon forget this and what starts of as an understandably numb performance becomes increasingly animated yet subtle as her past and present clash in the most unexpected of ways and she starts to discover secrets about herself and the people she finds herself with.

But the real surprise is Colin Morgan as Calum, Phyllis’s 20 something son. I say surprising as I’ve watched a couple of episodes of BBC’s Merlin, where he plays the title role, and have seen nothing to suggest he could actually act. Here he manages to imbue Calum with innocence without making him over sentimental. We are never sure whether his naive outlook on life is a result of his mother’s over protection, or whether she has protected him from a world he is ill equipped to face. It’s a lovely performance and I hope he manages to escape Camelot soon and return to more demanding fare.

As Island nears the end it becomes quite shocking, and almost moves into horror movie territory. It certainly makes you move to the edge of your seat, and the film finishes with the brave decision not to neatly tie things together. You leave the cinema wanting to know what happens to Calum and Nicky, something I didn’t expect when I first met these characters. It is, in every sense, a tragedy that is only lifted by the possibility of what the future may hold. Here’s the trailer:

This is where such festivals come into there own, letting audiences see what is on offer outside of the weekly releases into Cineworld. Glasgow Film Festival gets the balance between the unknown, the well-loved, the unusual and the popular just right. If you haven’t made it along yet there’s still plenty of time, and you can find what’s available here www.glasgowfilm. I think this year has been the most assured and varied Glasgow Film Festival to date. I’m already excited by what they’ll programme for next year.

Alastair

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