Jump Cut: Trainspotting on TV

Tonight ushers in the premiere of CBS’s Elementary, the newest rehashing of the Sherlock Holmes story, set in a contemporary New York. It looks as if, in some circles at least, its promising buzz has turned into less-than-enthusiastic reviews. But I am going to watch anyway, for Jonny Lee Miller plays the iconic character. You see, with him returning to the American tube, this means that you can see four of the six members of the principal cast of Trainspotting (Danny Boyle, 1996) on TV every week. You might recall that besides being one of my very favorite films, Trainspotting represents a watershed moment in the history of my cinephilia.

In addition to Miller’s (Sick Boy) starring role on Elementary, three other Trainspotters keep busy as parts of big TV casts. Robert “Bobby” Carlyle (Begbie) is on the audience favorite Once Upon a Time (2011-present), playing a certain Mr. Gold, a creep whose storybook world double is Rumpelstiltskin. I only ever watched the pilot that aired last year. I watched, of course, because he is in it, but sadly it was not my cup of tea. Since 2008 (or the fifth season), Kevin McKidd (Tommy) has appeared on the same network, ABC, as Dr. Owen Hunt, Iraq War veteran/PTSD sufferer/Dr. Christina Yang husband-turned-adulterer in the commercial juggernaut that is Grey’s Anatomy (2005-present), which is entering its ninth—and hopefully last—season tonight. Finally, we have Kelly Macdonald (Diane). If there is a leading lady on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire (2010-present), then it would have to be her: she plays Margaret Shroeder, an Irish immigrant in 1920 Atlantic City who falls under the spell of the county treasurer/bootlegging gangster Enoch “Nucky” Thompson. The third season started a little more than two weeks ago with them, having gotten married to protect his investments, on the outs.

The star of Trainspotting—and the only bonafide “movie star” of the bunch—Ewan McGregor (Renton), was going to be part of an ensemble for HBO: indie auteur Noah Baumbach developed, co-wrote, and directed the pilot adaptation of The Corrections with author Jonathan Franzen’s full participation. Then in May, the cable channel pulled the plug on the production, for whatever reason. I was really looking forward to this, not because I know anything about The Corrections (which for the record, I do not), but because I knew it meant five, yes, FIVE! cast members of Trainspotting were going to be on American TV regularly. Interesting to see how their wildly different career trajectories brought them to the same medium, “across the pond” as it were, but on programs that couldn’t be any less similar.

The only cast member never to have secured a regular role on an American TV show is Ewen Bremner (Spud). What hypothetical or existing show can you imagine him having a part on? Although I gave up on it within the first five episodes of its most recent third season, I think I could imagine Ewen on FX’s Justified (2010-present). If you think the waifish Jeremy Davies can play the heir to an Appalachian drug empire with the most nervous energy, I wouldn’t put it past Mr. Bremner to do him one or two better. If he were cast—and I know this is nothing but a pipe dream—then maybe I’d tune into the show again. Even with Timothy Olyphant’s central performance, I couldn’t get interested in Justified, particularly because its Southern California filming locations betrayed its Kentucky setting to such an extent that I didn’t buy any of it. But I digress.

By way of conclusion, I think it’s worth noting the fun coincidence that the Oxford English Dictionary‘s “Word of the Day” is “trainspotter.” Not only do I subscribe to this mailing list, I collect the words I like the sound and/or meaning(s) of. Allow me to educate: according to the trusty ol’ OED, the word, a noun and originally and chiefly British, refers to 1) “A person (often a boy) whose hobby is observing trains and recording railway locomotive numbers, sometimes with other details” and 2) “In extended use (freq. depreciative): a person who enthusiastically or obsessively studies the minutiae of any subject; a collector of trivial information.” That’s me!

Though the OED gives “trainspotterish” as a related word, it stops short of giving the further association and definition of “trainspotting,” which refers to a heroin addict’s practice of finding a fresh vein into which he or she can inject the drug. (The markings on their arms resemble train tracks.) Yes, this means that the title of the book and movie Trainspotting represents a utilitarian concept, and in much the same way that we say we “geek out” whenever we get really excited about something in pop culture, thereby taking ownership of the image which may make us seem uncool or esoteric to others, I like to call myself a “trainspotter.” I don’t watch trains (but I do whenever I have the chance), and I’m not a heroin addict, but I am a trainspotter—especially when it comes to Trainspotting.

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Movie Travel Diary: Edinburgh

Approaching Edinburgh Castle along High Street (aka the Royal Mile), near sundown, as captured by the author.

Edinburgh. Edinburgh. Edinburgh. Say that three times fast, pronouncing the Scottish capital’s name just as the natives do (nowhere near “burg” and slightly clipped away from the longer “burra”). If only the incantation were like the one in Beetlejuice (Tim Burton, 1988), except it would transport me. When my sister and I came to Edinburgh, after a few days in Glasgow and before making our way to London in December 2006, my expectations were as high as the Castle, which sits above the city as if it were a crown or the cherry atop a hot fudge sundae. In the city center, it’s virtually impossible to look up without seeing Edinburgh Castle. This undoubtedly leaves a rather picturesque impression on the mind, long after you have gone.

Running tangential to my rampant Anglophilia (and the equivalent for Ireland, whatever its name may be), is my even more ravenous hunger for all things Scottish. I cannot pinpoint exactly where and when it began. I’m sure members of my family would tell you that it started consuming me when I first rented on VHS the new, much buzzed-about indie hit Trainspotting (Danny Boyle, 1996) at the tender age of ten. (What can I say? I have two of the most permissible parents on the planet when it comes to thematic content in film.) However, I don’t think that is entirely true, for I must have already had an intense interest in Scotland to have even heard of such a film about a cadre of heroin addicts and to seek it out for screening. But truth be told, it lay the groundwork for my passionate exploration of Scotland, through movies, music, history, literature, politics, comedy, etc., which continues unabated to this day. Trainspotting represents for me one of my most formative experiences of cinephilia, and thus warrants its own future post. But suffice it to say that when I arrived in Edinburgh, I wanted to see how it matched up with the hundreds of Trainspotting viewings I had enjoyed already.

I wasn’t expecting much overlap in scenery, actually. Trainspotting had been shot mostly in Glasgow. I remember a Glaswegian telling me in an anonymous online chatroom (remember those? how quaint!) that the Taxi Driver-themed nightclub where Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) meets Diane (Kelly Macdonald) is—or at least, was—located in his city. I’m not sure that the filmmakers even used Irvine Welsh’s inspired setting, Leith, when they shot the picture. And in retrospect, I regret not riding the bus out there, especially after having read much of the Trainspotting author’s oeuvre set in the (once-)depressed municipal port north of the city.

Not being big shoppers, my sister and I knew that we still had to see Princes Street, the main thoroughfare in Edinburgh, which divides New Town from the Old (and vice versa). In the opening scene of Trainspotting, Renton and his best bud Spud (Ewen Bremner) run down this avenue, cops in hot pursuit. Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” provides the propulsive score to the action. Eventually, Renton’s voice-over intones why people “choose life” and why he explicitly hasn’t. These audio and visual ingredients are iconic on their own, but when mixed together, they ensure the film’s cult status right out of the gate. Which is exactly why I had to make a pilgrimage to Princes Street (it’s not hard to do, the train station’s right there). This scene is practically the only one shot in Edinburgh; they couldn’t easily double Glasgow when introducing the city with this kind of iconic shorthand.

The view from Cockburn Street (if memory serves) of Princes Street. The Royal Scottish Academy and National Gallery of Scotland are in the foreground, with Waverley Train Station in the middle, and off in the distance is Calton Hill. Photo by the author.

There aren’t many films set—let alone shot—in Edinburgh, as film industries favor the more populous Glasgow for its urban Scottish stories (don’t get me started on Highland film settings). Shallow Grave (Danny Boyle, 1994) and One Day (Lone Scherfig, 2011) are notable exceptions, and they both capture Edinburgh as the beautiful, historic, lived-in city that I dreamily wandered around for days. But 16 Years of Alcohol (Richard Jobson, 2003) and Driving Lessons (Jeremy Brock, 2006) provide more specialized glimpses of the capital city that I recognize from personal experience.

The first, billed on a poster as “Trainspotting Meets A Clockwork Orange” (it’s like neither of those two), has a memorable scene set on Calton Hill, where the reformed skinhead protagonist (played by Kevin McKidd, of Trainspotting fame) seeks redemption. Standing on a hillside walkway, where I snapped the above picture, I remember feeling overjoyed at the sight of Calton Hill in the faraway distance, its unfinished early 19th century Parthenon and Nelson Monument (the tower that looks like an upside down telescope) presiding over the city. I recalled both landmark structures from my viewing of the little-seen 16 Years of Alcohol, which underscores their deeply symbolic position to quiet but melodramatic effect. The film also has many scenes set in closes, or steep streets that connect the Royal Mile to streets down below. Although I remember giddily exploring one or two of these dark passageways, I regret not taking a haunted tour of Edinburgh that used them as occasions to tell macabre stories about the city’s past.

Driving Lessons takes place mostly in England, but the wacky actress Julie Walters dupes her assistant Rupert Grint into chauffeuring her all the way to Edinburgh for a speaking engagement. Much of the Edinburgh action hews closely to the area around Princes Street, but the characters stop in at a pawn shop on the Royal Mile, not far from the chintzy souvenir shop where I purchased a Royal Standard of Scotland (you know, the golden flag with a red lion). I later found out it wasn’t the real thing (the lion on my flag didn’t have a blue tongue, probably because the unauthorized production and display of the royal family’s rampart is punishable by law). Whenever I see Driving Lessons, I’m reminded of this… fact. And until fairly recently, the flag’s inauthenticity always made me feel dejected whenever I looked up at it, hanging on the wall above my bed. So I finally replaced it with the Scottish national flag, the Saltire (or St. Andrew’s Cross), which my sister gifted me for my birthday a few weeks ago. Her message? “Let your Scottish freak flag fly!”

No film could prepare me for Edinburgh. When we first arrived, the air smelled delicious, of smoked hot dogs. Later, when my sister and I sampled different varieties of Scotch whisky at Edinburgh Castle, we realized the city’s aroma was the byproduct of numerous nearby distilleries. To this day, when I think of Edinburgh and inevitably yearn to return there (specifically to live), I can’t help but smell it. Even if the whisky burned my throat.

I woke up one morning in Edinburgh with a sore throat, but it wasn’t because of the whisky. I had stupidly gone to sleep with damp hair the night before. At the time, it spoiled my memory of the previous night, which came to me as an utter surprise. Not knowing how to spend the evening after dinner (my sister and I aren’t big on bars or nightclubs), I allowed her to drag me to see The Holiday (Nancy Meyers, 2006). As you might recall, she’s really into romantic comedies, and I am not. In any case, I rather enjoyed the film and its romantic sense of adventure. It made me wish I could meet a sensitive and sexy Scot while on my travels, just as Cameron Diaz’s unemotional-to-a-fault workaholic falls into bed with the mysterious cad-turned-superdad played by Jude Law. Oh well. Such romantic fantasies are just made for the screen (pun intended). After all, my real love affair was with Edinburgh, who made such a euphoric impact on all of my senses, including, most of all, my sense of self. This is going to sound really cheesy, but it’s true. Since I had romanticized the city for years, I hoped against hope that I would fall in love with the place and never want to leave. This dream did indeed come true, but I also had to make the painful realization that the days I spent in Edinburgh were not nearly sufficient enough for me to really get to know the city. Instead, Edinburgh is like a soul mate you meet all-too-briefly before you go your separate ways. No matter where I am or what I do, I can’t shake the memory of Edinburgh’s cheeky smile, traumatic and triumphant life experiences, and a self-confidence that set me at ease. I can’t wait for us to meet again.

Up next: another entry of Movie Travel Diary. But until then, tell me about your movie-related experiences in Edinburgh. Which film(s) best represents the Edinburgh you know from your own travels?

Long Take: Salmon Fishing in the Yemen Comes Up With an Easy Catch

Viewed July 18, 2012

On Tuesday, Alison Nastasi of Flavorwire posted ten movie titles she has deemed the quirkiest in the history of cinema. Her list runs the gamut from Stanley Kubrick’s classic Cold War black comedy Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) to Sacha Baron Cohen’s performance art piece Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (Larry Charles, 2006). I would venture to add 2011’s Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, Lasse Hallström’s latest exercise in milquetoast filmmaking, to this group. Released in March 2012 in the U.S., the film went on to receive generally favorable reviews, or so says Rotten Tomatoes, but it failed to catch lots of fish in the audience pool. Could it have been the off-putting and somewhat confusing title? (When I mentioned to my father and brother that I had rented the movie on DVD, they both seemed puzzled by the title. Who calls Yemen “The Yemen”? With a shrug, I suggested that perhaps Yemen is like Gambia, whose short name is technically The Gambia.)

Based on Paul Torday’s novel of the same name, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen charts the relationship between a British financial consultant, Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt), and a government fisheries expert, Dr. Alfred Jones (Ewan McGregor), whom she contacts to help with a project that one of her clients would like to see implemented. And that’s just what the movie title refers to: the Yemeni Sheikh Muhammad (Amr Waked) wishes to introduce the sport of fly fishing salmon in his arid, river-less homeland. As the film’s romantic leads, McGregor and Blunt have a fair amount of chemistry, but they hardly set the screen on fire. In fact, the film neither works as a romantic comedy nor as an emotional and spiritual uplift movie, the kind of cinema with which director Hallström has made his name. As per usual, I’m going to spoil the plot of the movie below.

The first twenty minutes or so of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen establish the respective personal and professional worlds of Harriet and Fred, cutting between them so that the tension mounts and the spectator knows that as soon as these super-attractive individuals meet, sparks are going to fly. Like many other romantic comedies, Salmon Fishing utilizes the Pride and Prejudice template, at first pitting Harriet and Fred against each other before they fall in love. Obsessed with his own research, Fred resents having to take a meeting with the persistent Harriet at her office, clear on the other side of London town. He rejects her client’s proposal as “fundamentally unfeasible” and laughs in her face; the geography and climate of the Arabian country just don’t allow for this species’s survival. So things between them get off to a rocky start. By the time he returns to his cubicle at the Department of Fisheries and Agriculture, the Prime Minister’s office has gotten involved, forcing Fred’s boss, Bernard (Conleth Hill), to issue an ultimatum: either accept termination of employment or work exclusively on this project—with a raise. If only all career decisions were as easy to make. I should mention that as the head of the PM’s press office, Patricia Maxwell (played by Kristin Scott Thomas) latches onto the sheikh’s aspirational story so as to counterbalance all of the other destructive events taking place across the Middle East and Central Asia, particularly when it comes to Britain’s continued fighting in Afghanistan.

The trouble with Harriet and Fred’s relationship is that the filmmakers have no creative ways to keep them apart, which is a plot contrivance they’re very committed to upholding until the last scene. A reserved and humorless Ph.D. from Scotland, Fred is married to a cold and distant career-minded woman named Mary (Rachael Stirling). Their sex is passionless and perfunctory, and when he desperately suggests that they have a baby together, pledging to raise it while she goes off to work everyday, she doesn’t hear him. He is so emasculated and unfulfilled that he doesn’t have the balls to repeat himself when she requests for him to do so. Much of the film story unfolds while Mary takes an extended business trip to Geneva, freeing Fred to hang out with Harriet outside of their office hours, in London, Yemen, and Scotland. Thus, when Mary returns to surprise Fred, she receives one of her own: during an interrogation, Fred tells his wife that he’s in love with his work colleague Harriet. Seriously? That’s the best you can come up with? It’s completely unoriginal to make the romantic hero unhappily married, to a distant woman, no less, in order to render his attraction to a caring and sensitive woman compelling, even refreshing. How many times have we seen this before? It would have been more interesting if the script merely presented Fred’s being socially awkward as an impediment to their getting together, with his interactions with Harriet and the sheikh eventually loosening him up. At one point, Harriet teases him about having Asperger’s syndrome, and his response is so cryptic that it’s unclear whether or not he truly has it.

But, if you can believe it, the reason why Harriet cannot attach herself to Fred is even more ridiculous. She spends most of the film crying over her boyfriend of three weeks, Army Captain Robert (Tom Mison), who goes missing in action in Afghanistan. Three weeks?! Don’t get me wrong: it’s a devastating loss, and I cannot imagine how unbearable that kind of uncertainty is. However, I can’t help but wonder if her constant grieving, which Fred does his best to soothe her through, isn’t at least a smidge overly dramatic (and how is he able to do that anyway if he has Asperger’s?). When she finally receives notice that Robert was in fact killed in an attack, she blubbers about how she didn’t even get to know him. Mourning what might have been is perfectly understandable, but through most of the film, she acts as if she has known Robert her whole life (even going so far as to quit coming in to work for days on end), perhaps clinging to his proposal that she wait for him until he gets back from the war. And when he miraculously survives, Patricia uses Robert to elevate the Yemeni project in the eyes of the British public, inviting him to the site to fish in the wadi. No surprise: Robert turns out to be a bore whose embraces stifle Harriet and make her long for Fred. Hmm, I wonder whom she will pick.

But Salmon Fishing carries more than just a clunky romantic comedy narrative; it also represents an emotional and spiritual uplift movie because it is about the personal growth that derives from leaving one’s comfort zone and dreaming the impossible. Sheikh Muhammad, funnily enough, ties these two strands together, but not without some clumsy narrative tropes. On the one hand, the sheikh, upon his quirky introduction at his Scottish loch-side estate, is established as Harriet and Fred’s matchmaker. Over drinks after dinner, he quizzes his project’s top team members about their personal lives, remarking that what Harriet and Fred have in common is that they are each away from their loved ones. What is the sheikh suggesting, anyway? “Ooh, you can get up to something while you’re here, in one of my dozens of guestrooms”? No, but it is a hint that the sexual tension between them is noticeable and that Sheikh Muhammad would approve of their eventual union. Later, at the end of the film, just when it appears that Harriet is leaving the wadi with Robert, the sheikh climbs atop a mound of rocks to see if the salmon have survived a flood that local dissidents have caused by opening the sheikh’s dam. When he spots one still unbelievably swimming upstream, Harriet and Fred rejoice, and he renews his vow to stand by the sheikh and continue to build the site. Harriet volunteers to assist (meaning: to stay with him). Thus, in this moment, Sheikh Muhammad’s gaze from on-high allows him to keep alive the twin dreams of introducing salmon fishing in the country and commencing in earnest their heretofore tentative romance, which I must add, is signaled not with a passionate kiss but with their holding each other’s hands.

Sheikh Muhammad, Fred, and Harriet go over their plans—for salmon fishing in the desert and, implicitly, for romance. Image courtesy of http://www.collider.com

More problematic, however, is the sheikh’s characterization. He is obviously meant to challenge stereotypes about Middle Eastern men, specifically those with oil-exploitative wealth and thus political power, but in doing so, he perpetuates them. He quickly bonds with Fred over a session of fly fishing, talking candidly and self-consciously about his crazy plans, inserting the odd curse word here and there. But he is also stoic and wise, speaking eloquently about his country, hobby, and dreams of development. That he trusts a young British woman with his £50 million investment, asking her to recruit a fisheries consultant and such, suggests that he not only holds zero grudges against the former occupiers of his country, but that he is also one for gender equality. Eh, not so fast: while hobnobbing with Harriet and Fred during their first stay at his Scottish glen estate, he mentions that he has many wives. Thus, he isn’t quite as progressive or “visionary” as Harriet believes; he still leads a rather traditional lifestyle, and the fact that the filmmakers use polygamy to signify his Otherness means that they are treading on popular Western-conceived notions of Middle Eastern cultures. In other words, are there no other ways to say the sheikh is a mixture of worldviews? There isn’t anything even distinctly Yemeni about him, his culture remaining a mystery to the Anglo-American viewer. (Morocco stands in for Yemen, I should I add, too.)

Worse still, it isn’t until the end of the film, I think during a press conference or photo opportunity, that Sheikh Muhammad explains his uncommon project for developing the wadi and surrounding land areas as beneficial to the local communities. Although it is unclear what his title entails (as in, what is his jurisdiction?), the sheikh obviously feels a sense of responsibility toward his people (whoever they are) and thus wants to use his wealth to enrich their lives. However, for most of the film, given Fred’s reluctance to accept the sheikh’s plans, salmon fishing in Yemen comes across as merely one rich, eccentric man’s expensive and incomprehensible (i.e. Western) hobby. The intricacies of his vision are never really elaborated; has he surmised that fly fishing promotes irrigation, provides clean water access, or even relieves stress for resident farmers? This is also why I couldn’t help but wonder, why wouldn’t he just invest £50 million in a much more practical development plan? Added to all of this is the sheikh’s unpopularity with some gun-toting, perhaps tribal, terrorists. His heated argument with one of the militants, who harasses him on the building site, goes un-subtitled, and when he later summarizes what transpired between them for Harriet and Fred, they don’t follow up with questions. At one point, while fishing in Scotland, Fred even saves the sheikh from an assassination attempt with his perfectly angled and cast fishing line. Right… Did no one ever ask Sheikh Muhammad if his money would be better spent on a more popular project? Then again, no one can argue with money and power.

Sheikh Muhammad and Harriet supervise the construction of a Yemeni river for salmon fishing. He comes prepared with a sheathed dagger at his waist. Image courtesy of http://www.pinkjulepabroad.com

In fact, the premise and beginning of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen seemed to suggest that the film is about a clash of cultures, which is something that director Hallström specializes in. Scanning his filmography, it is easy to spot how he gravitates toward stories that revolve around outsiders, such as Tobey Maguire’s Homer Wells in The Cider House Rules (1999) and Juliette Binoche’s Vianne in Chocolat (2000), characters who bring about sea-changes when they, respectively, step onto an apple orchard or into a small ultra-religious village. You might expect something similar to happen between Fred and Sheikh Muhammad, but because the sheikh is so “Western” he doesn’t present any real culturally ideological challenges. Instead, Fred, a skeptical scientist, merely must learn to believe that they can pull it off, despite all evidence to the contrary, because the sheikh’s unflappable faith is contagiously comforting. After all, when a rich man charms you with a highly appreciative salary, glowing compliments, and lavishly furnished wadi-side tents in addition to granting you free-reign at his Scottish estate, how can you resist agreeing with him?

This brings me to my next point: I cannot ignore Salmon Fishing‘s representation of Scotland and Scottish identity, topics that I have begun to ritually analyze. Sheikh Muhammad is obviously obsessed with Scotland, a somewhat perplexing but ultimately amusing characterization. His fascination with the culture presents something of a chicken-and-the-egg paradox: is his Scottish estate—located in the Highlands, no less—his favorite among all his land holdings because he loves fishing for salmon or is it the other way around? In other words, how did his love affairs with Scotland and salmon even start? Interestingly, Yemeni men dressed in traditional clothing guard his glen manor, but he keeps on a Scottish butler, Malcolm (Hamish Gray), to greet guests and manage the property’s day-to-day operations. Later, when the British Prime Minister’s publicist Patricia visits to discuss the impossibility of swiping 10,000 wild British salmon and transferring them to Yemen, the sheikh’s men are decked out in kilts!

Patricia, Malcolm, and Sheikh Muhammad pass a line of Yemeni guards in kilts. Image courtesy of http://www.allmoviephoto.com

My knee-jerk reaction to this scene was a rolling of the eyes. Kilts, of course. What could be more Scottish? But on second thought, this image is representative of how Salmon Fishing sheds light on how Scottish identity seems much more performative than others. That is, putting a kilt on a man renders a whole history, culture, and nation wearable, transferrable. Just notice how the sheikh’s robe clashes with the tartan of his men’s kilts, thereby divorcing the fashion statement from the cultural significance of the patterns, which historically correspond to Scottish families or clans. One of my favorite commentaries on the flexibility of Scottish identity, or how easy it is for non-Scots to adopt traditional Scottish clothing, dancing, or cooking as a way to express themselves or define who they are, comes from The Big Tease (Kevin Allen, 1999). In it, co-screenwriter and now-late night talk-show host Craig Ferguson stars as a Glasgow-based hairstylist who travels to Los Angeles to compete in a hairdressing competition. When he meets with the manager of his hotel to discuss a discrepancy on his bill, the manager (Larry Miller) professes his love for Scotland, saying that, though he’s never been to the Northern European country, he has seen enough pictures of the place to feel that he is, in fact, Scottish. Why do so many non-Scots identify with Scotland, perhaps even wishing to be Scottish? Do they feel an affinity toward a group of people who they perceive as eccentric (i.e. kilts, bagpipes, thick accents, haggis) or as heroic underdogs (Braveheart certainly made fighting against English colonizers fashionable)?

I think that it is all these things, to some degree, and in the case of Salmon Fishing, Sheikh Muhammad’s eccentric character (manifest in his hobby, dress, and home) aligns with his perception of Scottishness as a wearable identity. Unfortunately, Fred, as a Scotsman, never remarks on the sheikh’s overly enthusiastic appreciation for Scotland and Scottish culture. If he had, perhaps a more satisfying cultural exchange between the two men would have occurred. Instead, the filmmakers leave it up to Harriet’s boyfriend Robert to comment on the sheikh’s seemingly conflicted cultural identities. Once the war-torn lovers reunite in Yemen, Robert jokes that Sheikh Muhammad’s next venture will be to erect a golf course in the desert. This rubs Harriet the wrong way, as she is by now a full-on convert to the sheikh’s optimistic vision, and signals the lovers’ fundamental incompatibility.

As with its rom-com narrative thread, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen‘s inspirational theme flounders. But at least its dissection of Scottishness proved more rewarding, though not wholly satisfying.

Long Take: The Decoy Bride Charms a Rom-Com Skeptic

Viewed July 7, 2012

It is not yet apparent—but it soon will be—that I am not one for romantic comedies. While I can enjoy some of them, I much prefer romantic dramas, particularly those set in a bygone era. We tend to think of such narrative dramas as more plausible than their comedic counterparts. And with good reason. Comic writer, essayist, and actress Mindy Kaling put it best in The New Yorker, back in October of last year:

I like watching people fall in love onscreen so much that I can suspend my disbelief in the contrived situations that occur only in the heightened world of romantic comedies. I have come to enjoy the moment when the male lead, say, slips and falls right on top of the expensive wedding cake. I actually feel robbed when the female lead’s dress doesn’t get torn open at a baseball game while the JumboTron camera is on her. I regard romantic comedies as a subgenre of sci-fi, in which the world operates according to different rules than my regular human world. For me, there is no difference between Ripley from Alien and any Katherine Heigl character. They are equally implausible. They’re all participating in a similar level of fakey razzle-dazzle, and I enjoy every second of it.

I felt a sense of enlightenment upon first reading her observation about the romantic comedy. It is with her outlook on her favorite movie genre that I am able to approach—and even appreciate—examples from it. For this reason, I was able to enjoy Sheree Folkson’s The Decoy Bride (2011), though I admit that the setting and actors were the main draws. Spoilers ahead!

Kelly Macdonald stars as Katie NicAoidh, a thirty-two-year-old who gives up her dreams of making it in the big city (Edinburgh!) and returns home to Hegg, a fictional island located way out there in the Outer Hebrides. She leaves her cheating musician of a fiance behind, along with a soul-sucking job writing for an online men’s trousers catalogue (laying it on thick, eh?), to wallow in self-pity at her mother’s bed & breakfast establishment. Her romantic future looks bleak (she’s turned “vegan” when it comes to men), as she is the youngest of 75 island residents and the only single woman among them. Cue the arrival of her soul-mate! James Arber (a flappable David Tennant) is an up-and-coming “serious author” who is engaged to the superstar American actress Lara Tyler (Alice Eve). When the pestering cameras of paparazzi make it impossible for the couple to get married in private, Lara and her handlers (agent Michael Urie and his assistant Sally Phillips, who co-wrote the screenplay) arrange their super-secret nuptials on Hegg. Having glimpsed her arch-enemy, the paparazzo Marco (Federico Castelluccio), trawling the chapel, Lara runs away the morning of her wedding, leaving her agent, Steve (Urie), to devise a dubious plan: he hires Katie to pose as Lara during the ceremony, hoping to pass off the event as the couple’s wedding to the press (he doesn’t even let James in on it). Steve believes that if the press and public already think they’re married, then they will be able to wed privately, for real. Don’t you see why it’s best to think of the romantic comedy as a sub-genre of sci-fi?

Complications arise when Katie accidentally signs the register with her own name, rendering her marriage to James official. (Seriously, she thought Steve’s offer of £5000 was worth the trouble of breaking the law?) It’s worth mentioning here that they had met each other the day before: James, under an assumed name (to keep his wedding secret from the islanders), bumped into her while Katie was researching the definitive guidebook to Hegg that she is writing. After she makes a disastrous pass at him, they both decide that they don’t like each other. Later, when James discovers what Steve has orchestrated, the verbal sparring matches between James and Katie really begin.

Steve locks the fighting newlyweds in the tower of the castle that he has had renovated for the secret, romantic destination wedding. James and Katie’s being locked up in the honeymoon suite and their subsequent determined escape from it subvert the setting’s fairytale ending connotations. But this is just the beginning of their love story. Like in the seminal romantic comedy Pride and Prejudice, the protagonists must offend each other before they fall deeply in love. This process begins shortly after James saves Katie from drowning in the castle’s moat, a heroic gesture that is clearly a reference to legends of chivalry. Astonishingly, his rescue surprises both of them—but not the spectator. Besides, how could anyone let someone else drown, no matter how irritating the person is?!

The Decoy Bride utilizes many tropes of the romantic comedy genre, especially the wedding theme, which is so prevalent that it warrants its own sub-genre. The “wedding film” has proliferated in the 2000s, counting among its ranks such films as The Wedding Planner (Adam Shankman, 2001), The Wedding Date (Clare Kilner, 2005), 27 Dresses (Anne Fletcher, 2008), Bride Wars (Gary Winick, 2009) and even the “manly” antidotes Wedding Crashers (David Dobkin, 2005) and American Wedding (Jesse Dylan, 2003). Last year’s hugely successful Bridesmaids (Paul Feig, 2011) injected a feminine-inspired cynicism into all the stages of planning a wedding. Feminist film scholar Diane Negra, in What a Girl Wants? Fantasizing the Reclamation of Self in Postfeminism, estimates that the American bridal industry is worth about $161 billion today (52). Along with magazines and news stories, these films contribute to pop culture’s fascination with the wedding event and stress the importance of the heteronormative rite-of-passage that getting married supposedly is for young women. As a wedding film, The Decoy Bride both makes fun of marriage and reaffirms its significance. On the one hand, the film upends the notion that marriage is a sacramental testament to everlasting love because James and Katie, who despise each other, accidentally wed. But on the other, since the mismatched couple fall in love while trying to get divorced, the spirit with which they were married turns out not to have been a fluke after all.

Although The Decoy Bride belongs with other wedding films, it has more in common with Pride and Prejudice than it does, say, Bride Wars. An English-language classic, Jane Austen’s 1813 novel is a telling portrait of the life options available to the women of her time: marry for money, for the betterment of your family, or face poor spinsterhood. The strength of Austen’s story lies in its form as a comedy of manners, the whole time poking fun at the institution of marriage and the people who endeavor to strike up the deals. While there is much more at stake pending Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy’s eventual union as opposed to whether or not Anne Hathaway and Kate Hudson will each secure the same overbooked wedding venue, Mr. and Mrs. Darcy’s early nineteenth century love story is thoroughly modern. Perhaps that is because our Anglo-American culture continues to recycle it. The (im)probable lovers have been immortalized in book and screen adaptations numerous times, often with funny sounding titles like Bridget Jones’s Diary (written by Helen Fielding in 1996 and directed by Sharon Maguire in 2001) or You’ve Got Mail (Nora Ephron, 1998). In fact, Katie resembles Bridget Jones’s version of Lizzie Bennet in that she is often publicly shamed for being over thirty and single. As struggling authors, James, who suffers from writer’s block, and Katie, who is just coming into her own as an author of a Hegg travel guide, lunge their daggers into each other’s literary egos in much the same way that Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan of You’ve Got Mail spar over carving out their respective book-selling niches on the Upper West Side. The Decoy Bride goes one step further in its homage to romantic comedies, pretty much all borne of Pride and Prejudice, with a scene in which James and Katie strip out of their wet clothes in her mother’s kitchen, a thin linen separating them—and tempting them to look at each other—as if they are in Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934).

My sister, an unabashed aficionado of romantic comedies, insists that the films work so long as the leads have chemistry. Kelly Macdonald and David Tennant do set off some romantic fireworks, but I’m afraid that James is not as appealing or likeable a character as Katie is. Mindy Kaling would be happy to learn that Katie is not so broadly drawn as to fit any of the archetypes for romantic comedies’ leading ladies that Kaling identifies in the piece I quoted from earlier. Katie is not an adorable klutz, a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, a humorless and ambitious workaholic, or a gluttonous slob with a six-pack of abs. She is self-aware (she knows that James is her type, an emotionally stunted “arty” guy, which means trouble) and has a self-deprecating sense of humor. Casting Macdonald in this role is actually refreshing. An “indie” actress who made her debut in Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting (1996), one of my all-time favorite films, she is usually cast in dark pictures, namely the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men (2007) and HBO’s Prohibition-set gangster epic Boardwalk Empire (2010-present). She brings to her character more nuance than we are used to seeing in other rom-com’s heroines. The look on her face when she decides to turn the ferry traveling away from Hegg back around, to reunite with James at the very end, is a prime example of this.

The problem with James as a male lead, an object of desire that we’re meant to want Katie to want and obtain, is that he never gets over himself or overcomes his charlatan ways. Lara chooses Hegg as the destination for their would-be super-secret wedding because it is the setting of his one and only book, The Ornithologist’s Wife, a heavy tome that the locals, including Katie, resent because it misrepresents the place. Using James’s book as a guide for planning their wedding, Steve soon discovers that James had never been to Hegg, because the lavish, bird-decorated castle doesn’t already exist there. Steve must invent it to appease his client. James’s dirty little secret remains buried vis-a-vis his fiancee, who, contrary to her lifestyle, is actually a down-to-earth, if a little naive, woman. Lara loves James because she believes he is a genius, regularly quoting his words back to him. On the occasion she says something stupidly romantic, he says he can’t believe he wrote that. In fact, it was her own original sentiment. Not only is he cruel, James has nothing in common with Lara, and it seems as if he wants to marry her because her desirability to others is a feather in his cap. He thinks that in addition to stroking his ego, she will also prove to be a fruitful muse and ensure his own fledgling fame lasts.

Despite the journey he takes with Katie all over the island, falling in love while trying to get divorced, it is revealed in the end, following the improbable lovers’ separation, that James and Lara never corrected the press and public’s shared impression that they wed. In other words, everyone thinks they’re still married. Thus, the dedication in his second book (“To my wife”), which is based on his experience with Katie, is directed not at Lara but at our heroine. While it may be a comfort that James and Katie share a private romance that is made public through his new novel, the fact that James would wish to deceive everyone, especially Katie, about being married to someone he does not love means he hasn’t learned his lesson. He may have started to write what he knows, at Katie’s insistence, but he hasn’t fully understood how to own up to it. Some romantic prize to be won.

Of course, embedded in all of this is a slight critique of our celebrity-obsessed culture. Lara is sympathetic in her desire for privacy, as is her hiding out in the village once the world’s press descends on Hegg. Since Steve has barred anyone from entering the castle, in trying to maintain the so-called integrity of the sham wedding, Lara applies her own makeup (quaint!) and takes up a disguise as an old village lady so that she may wander around the press camp undetected. In doing so, she chats with Marco, the paparazzo who has made her life a living hell and who redeems himself because he shows off candid photos of Lara that he never sold. In a pre-end credits scene, Lara attends Marco’s gallery opening, their suggestive smiles captured on film by a hovering paparazzo for the glossy tabloid Stars Today.

Back in Hegg, Lara also meets Katie’s mother, Iseabail (Maureen Beattie), who sold the wedding story to the press. Given the fact that Iseabail is terminally ill with an unnamed disease (this constitutes the weakest part of the film story), Lara’s threatening to push Iseabail, in her wheelchair, over a cliff if she doesn’t throw her huge wad of cash into the sea is unbelievably harsh. Lara then mistakes Iseabail as the inspiration for the titular character in James’s novel, a move that Iseabail encourages and in the end influences the actress to fund the dying woman’s trip around the world with Katie. (Having stayed put in Hegg all her life, Iseabail is itching to leave, her bucket list dreams recalling those of Tom Hanks in Joe Versus the Volcano [John Patrick Shanley, 1990].)

An opportunist and busybody, Iseabail is but one of the eccentric villagers. Others include elder citizens who hawk cookies and tea as well as expensive pet rocks to the deluge of visitors. Stranger still, there is Angus (Hamish Clark), a former boyfriend of Katie’s who weds someone he does not evidently love on the very day that Katie comes back to town. He later attempts to fight James for Katie’s hand. This is a ridiculous plot contrivance to prove to James and the audience that Katie is desirable. Then again, Katie is uneasy when it comes to the attention that Angus and William (James Fleet), Katie’s boss at the general store, regularly pay her. This probably has more to do with her unwillingness to stay in Hegg and her professional ambitions to travel and write. In the end, while she succeeds as the published author of a definitive if little-read history of Hegg, it is unclear if she and James will stay in Hegg. Or whether they will get married again—for real.

The Decoy Bride, a Scottish and Manx co-production, was shot on the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea, and while Hegg by no means represents a mythical Scotland a la the villages in Brigadoon (Vincente Minnelli, 1954) or Brave (Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman & Steve Purcell, 2012), the film does tread on all-too-familiar territory. The script calls for Katie and James to seek out Reverend McDonough (Tony Roper) because, as Katie assures, “he’ll know what to do.” Apparently in tune with island superstitions, he officiates their ceremonial divorce, which he rushes to perform before the first sunset as if he is breaking a spell. In fact, you might say that James and Katie’s determination to reverse their vows is not too dissimilar from Princess Merida and Queen Elinor’s race to lift the bear curse on the latter woman in Brave, which coincidentally stars Kelly Macdonald as the fiercely independent princess.

According to the film’s trivia page on the Internet Movie Database, many scenes and characters were struck from the shooting script because the budget was much lower than the screenplay’s earliest appraisal. This handicap is most noticeable toward the end of the film, leading up to the lovers’ inevitable reunion. I have no idea what changes would have been made if the filmmakers had the full £7 million as intended, but The Decoy Bride is a cute little movie nonetheless. Especially if you suspend your disbelief.

Long Take: Reclaiming Brave

Viewed June 27, 2012

Pixar’s thirteenth feature, Brave (Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman & Steve Purcell, 2012), may not be the best of the studio’s output. While it doesn’t reach the narrative heights of Ratatouille (Brad Bird, 2007), The Incredibles (Bird, 2004), Wall-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008), or Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich, 2010), the film certainly doesn’t belong with the drudgery that is Cars (John Lasseter, 2006) or Cars 2 (Lasseter, 2011). Set in medieval Scotland, Brave is a solid piece of Pixar animation and an affecting story that anyone would be proud to produce. Unlike most critics, who have contributed to the film’s middling score on Rotten Tomatoes (it’s middling for a movie by Pixar, whose works are almost always universally praised), I didn’t find Brave disappointing. In fact, it exceeded my expectations. Originally conceived by director Brenda Chapman, Brave is a welcome woman-centric entry into the Pixar canon. But it really should be celebrated for what it gets right: its overwhelmingly feminist story. You know the drill by now: I’m going to spoil the movie below.

During its opening weekend, Brave racked up $147 million in worldwide box office receipts ($66 million of which was gained in the US alone), thereby quelling fears that audiences wouldn’t turn out for the first Pixar movie to have a female protagonist. There is such a thing as brand loyalty, and when the film’s studio is synonymous with quality (in terms of story, characters, and art), who really could have thought that Brave wouldn’t bring audiences in, anyway? Still, it is refreshing to reflect that, provided the little ones weren’t bored with the emotional story, spectators of all ages were treated to a poignant film about mother-daughter relationships. In other words, Brave is not just another fairytale.

The mother-daughter relationships in fairytales historically pit good against evil, generally in the form of a young, beautiful, and sweet-natured “princess” overcoming the emotional and physical torture inflicted upon her by her stepmother. For example, Cinderella’s stepmother punishes her with menial labor around the house because her now deceased husband loved his daughter more than he loved her, and Cinderella is rewarded in the end for her moral goodness when the prince chooses her for his bride and not one of her stepsisters. More tellingly, one of the most enduring fairytales, which is coincidentally the first full-length animated feature (by Pixar’s parent company, Disney, no less), is about a witch’s murderous envy of her stepdaughter’s beauty. According to Maria Tatar, the Grimm brothers’ early version of “Snow White” reflects “children’s fears about the cruelty of stepmothers, at a time when mortality rates for child-bearing women were exceptionally high.” However, Monica Hesse is quick to point out that the original Grimm story was about a mother’s desire to kill her own daughter for the same reason. In this sense, Brave breaks with the fairytale tradition because the generational conflict is about compromise forged out of love.

Princess Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) and Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson) don’t see eye-to-eye on how the princess should comport herself. The teenaged Merida has taken after her warrior father, the fun-loving and rough-housing King Fergus (Billy Connolly). She prefers to fill the hours horseback riding through the nearby forest, climbing steep rock-faces to enjoy the view from the top, and practicing her already accomplished archery skills. Elinor is trying to make a lady out of her daughter, insisting she perfect her enunciation, needlepoint, and hospitality. Even though Merida is nowhere near ready to assume queenly duties (and nor does she want to), the queen has gone behind her daughter’s back to invite the first-born sons of three neighboring clans to compete in the Highland Games for Merida’s hand in marriage. Merida tries what she can to deter her mother’s plans, even going so far as to compete in—and win—the archery contest for her own hand. Watch this scene and get the chills:

So, Brave is a universal story about wanting to choose your own path in life. Following Merida’s embarrassing commandeering of the Games, mother and daughter get into a heated fight. Unfortunately, I can’t remember who acted first, but I know that Merida takes a knife to Elinor’s tapestry-in-progress, a portrait of the family, separating Elinor from the rest, and Elinor throws Merida’s bow into the fireplace, immediately regretting such an impulsive move. Although Merida’s desires are decidedly different from Ariel’s, the generational conflict in Brave reminds me of the one central to The Little Mermaid (Ron Clements & John Musker, 1989). Merida even enlists the transformative powers of a witch (Julie Walters), only, unlike Ariel, she selfishly wishes to change her mother rather than herself. (Recall how, in striking a deal with Ursula in order to meet and woo a land-bound prince, Ariel gained legs in exchange for her beautiful singing voice.) In Brave, the witch, who so desperately wants to work in peace as a wood-carver (“too many dissatisfied customers”), forgets to give Merida special instructions for serving Elinor the magic cake, and that is when the action really takes off.

The working title of Brave was The Bear and the Bow, and it is a good thing that the filmmakers made the switch. For the title would have given away the narrative twist, which Brave‘s marketing materials have done so well to keep under wraps: consuming Merida’s peace offering, the witch’s cake, transforms Elinor into a bear! A wacky Freaky Friday of sorts ensues with mother and daughter teaming up to reverse the spell while dodging the riotous clansmen in the castle. King Fergus in particular has a bear on his hit list; in the pre-title sequence, set when Merida received her first bow as a little girl, the giant, legendary bear Mor’du attacks the family’s picnic and eats Fergus’s left leg below the knee (off-“camera,” of course).

I’m not sure that the bear carries any special significance in Scottish culture, especially since neither Scotland nor the whole island of Great Britain has been home to wild bears for thousands of years. However, the bear metaphor is apt because we tend to anthropomorphize the wild animal due to the mother bear’s fierce protection of her cubs. Just this week, Good Morning America reported that three bear cubs broke into a car near Denver searching for food, their mother initially scared off by police officers who snapped photos of the bandits red-handed. The only other mention of animals in Brave are of the mythical sort. I can’t recall the exact circumstances, but someone mentions to Fergus the impossible existence of dragons, which I have interpreted to be a slight against How to Train Your Dragon (Chris Sanders & Dean DeBlois, 2010), perhaps the first and only near-Pixar quality DreamWorks Animation film about a viking community that, oddly enough, has a character or two with a Scottish accent.

In any case, Brave has received a lot of attention because animating Merida’s untamed orange curls pixel-by-pixel is an impressive feat. However, just as the filmmakers successfully infused children’s toys with life and a rat with excellent culinary skills, the animators of Brave wonderfully imbue the bear with Elinor’s prim-and-proper personality. We still see Elinor in the bear as she proudly wears her crown and insists that Merida keep her bow off the table. Though they’re both despondent, things calm down between them once the duo have learned, via a potion-controlled automated message from the now-absent witch, that if they do not mend their bond by the second sunrise, Elinor’s metamorphosis will become permanent. Frustrated that she can no longer speak, mother and daughter gradually develop a language based on non-verbal sounds, hand (or paw) gestures, and facial expressions. The first steps toward reconciliation occur on the banks of a river, where Merida teaches her mother how to fish. The irony is not lost on me: a young woman teaches a bear to fish with just its bare claws. Later, when they happen upon Mor’du’s pit and must run away to save themselves from his wrath, Merida rides on her mother bear’s back. Merida’s horse Angus may prove valuable in the end, but this earlier scene is poignant because it shows how connected mother and daughter are, despite (or because of) Elinor’s change.

In fact, one of the aspects I like best about Brave is how active both Merida and Elinor are. Their daring escape from Mor’du’s lair is just the tip of the iceberg. In the end, after Fergus finally discovers the broken furniture in Elinor’s bedroom and attributes the mess to Elinor the bear, believing she is Mor’du and therefore responsible for taking his leg and killing his beloved wife, he locks a protesting Merida in her room and chases Elinor out of the castle. With the manpower of the three visiting clans behind him, Fergus follows Elinor to a mystical Druid circle. Eventually, Merida gets out of her temporary prison, stitching up her mother’s tapestry while bouncing along on Angus’s back. She arrives just in time for the real Mor’du to show up and attack the humans. Fergus withdraws his fight, and everyone watches as Elinor the bear defends Merida, ingeniously wearing down one of the stones so that when Mor’du slams into it, it crushes and kills him. This resolution is satisfying because it defies expectations laid out at the beginning. Not only has the queen come to respect her daughter’s rough-and-tumble talents, she has also exhibited them herself. It is Elinor, after all, a woman bear of action, who defeats her husband’s wild foe—and not Fergus himself who does the deed. It is also important to note that Mor’du isn’t a villain; he is the way he is because he was once a human prince who broke with tradition and sought the witch’s magic in order to rule the kingdom on his own. His curse became permanent because he was too stubborn to right his wrongs. So, when Elinor kills him, his soul gratefully finds peace.

The maternal melodrama reaches its tearful conclusion when Merida, having practiced the womanly needlepoint skills her mother desperately grilled into her, wraps the tapestry around Elinor the bear. With a humble apology and a profession of love, Merida manages to bring back her mother’s human form, just as the sun rises. As much as I like New York magazine’s pop culture blog, Vulture, I am not willing to ignore its faults. Contributor Kyle Buchanan misunderstands a lot about the witch’s spell, believing that she casts it “[j]ust for cruel kicks.” First of all, Merida asks for the witch to “change” her mom, not for one to more accurately change her mother’s mind about her future, so we can hardly blame the witch for Merida’s confusing choice of words. Buchanan also takes the witch’s explanation of the spell’s conditions too literally, incredulous as to how the witch could have known that Elinor’s tapestry needed mending. That’s not actually the case, Kyle. The witch’s “answering service antidote” refers to the mother-daughter bond in a metaphorical way. It is Merida who conjures the idea to stitch the tapestry back together. Just think of how pleasing it would be to her mom!

Originally, I rolled my eyes at the the plot contrivance that the spell’s effects are only temporary for the first two days, but in hindsight I realize that it is enough time for the mother and daughter to reconnect. After all, they used to be close because of their shared belief in magic, and they do know each other very well. Through their adventure, they arrive at a compromise, which technically lies heavily in Merida’s favor. For even before Merida breaks the spell in the Druid circle, the princess’s agility outdoors and heartwarming speech in front of the fighting clansmen who have convened for the Highland Games inspires Elinor, still a bear, to sign the rest of her daughter’s speech, announcing that Queen Elinor has decided to suspend the Games. In witnessing Merida’s full appreciation for tradition, Elinor insists that the three suitors who have competed for her hand, along with everyone else throughout the kingdom, should have the right to choose whomever they want to marry. Talk about a change of heart.

This resolution complements the film’s overarching feminist representation of power. Fergus may be the king of all four clans, which are each headed by men, but it is Elinor who effectively rules. She organizes the Highland Games and arranges Merida’s marriage. When fighting breaks out among the clans upon their arrival, she brings it to an end with a stern turn about the room, silencing even her brawling husband. Most importantly, Queen Elinor stops Merida, who speaks passionately about the importance of tradition, before her daughter chooses who among the sons of Lords Macintosh (Craig Ferguson), MacGuffin (Kevin McKidd), and Dingwall (Robbie Coltrane), will be her husband. In this way, through her influence over her mother, Merida becomes the most powerful DunBroch in the kingdom. In the future, she may remember to keep her bow off the dining room table to please her mother, but she will not have to hang it up completely.

Brave is violent in parts, such as whenever Mor’du appears on-screen. But perhaps more shocking than this is the prevalence of nudity. For example, Merida locks Fergus and his men outside on the tower in order to get Elinor, newly transformed into a bear, out of the castle. The men tie their kilts together and climb down, and as they walk out of the frame, the spectator glimpses their bare asses. Later in the film, after Merida breaks the spell, her mischievous little brothers, the triplets Hamish, Hubert, and Harris, run over to the naked Queen Elinor, their bare asses also visible (they had eaten from the magic cake at one point, too). It is an interesting choice to feature comic nudity in an animated family film. Pixar had never gone this route before. But I am glad that the filmmakers included a sexualized instance of the female gaze. When Lord Dingwall introduces his son before the royal family, a gigantic Schwarzenegger-like figure with bulging muscles and an unreal tan stands in front of them. Elinor leans forward in her throne to watch the expression on Merida’s face as she registers the man’s appearance. It’s not clear whether or not the denouement that he is not Lord Dingwall’s son disappoints either woman, but their looking at his body suggests that the filmmakers have a keen sense of irony when it comes to fairytale desires.

As a lover of all things Scottish, I admit that I was originally trepidatious going in to see Brave because the film circulates many stereotypes, including a mystical highland setting, jokes about kilts (Lord Dingwall moons Lord MacGuffin), and anachronistic blue face paint. In fact, I didn’t even like the title because it resembles too closely Mel Gibson’s rape of Scottish and English history also known as Braveheart (1995). Thankfully, the film is neither Brigadoon (Vincente Minnelli, 1954) nor Braveheart, and these small quibbles do not detract from the emotional pull of the story. In sum, I appreciate that the film reclaims the adjective “brave,” which typically connotes masculine courage, by attaching it to a young woman’s adventure of self-discovery.