At the outset of "Orphans," four adults living in Glasgow, Scotland, gather to prepare for the funeral of their recently deceased mother. Their tearful private farewell is the beginning of a traumatic evening whose catastrophes include (but are not limited to) a pub fight, two stabbings, a home invasion and the threatening of some young children with a sawed-off shotgun.
It's a lot funnier than it sounds. Funny, that is, according to a paradigm that's revered across the pond -- the one that recognizes abject, unrelenting misery as a surefire source of laughs. In his debut as a writer and director of feature films, actor Peter Mullan ("Trainspotting," "Braveheart") engineers an escalating tale of woe that finds humor in the now-we-have-to-endure-this world view of his homeland, yet seldom shortchanges the underlying gravity of its events.
We wouldn't wish a night like this one on our worst enemies. The mourning Flynn clan -- Thomas (Gary Lewis), Michael (Douglas Henshall), Sheila (Rosemarie Stevenson) and John (Stephen McCole) -- repair to the local tavern to drown their sorrows as they await the funeral that's to take place the following morning. The sobbing Thomas makes an easy target of derision for neighborhood wiseacre DD Duncan (Malcolm Shields), whose mockery initiates a room-clearing brawl that leaves Michael bleeding from a knife wound.
Younger brother John vows revenge against Duncan, seeking the aid of sociopathic cousin Tanga (Frank Gallagher) in securing a weapon. Instead of going to the hospital, Michael schemes to pass off his bloodied abdomen as a work-related injury that deserves compensation. Meanwhile, Thomas locks himself in the chapel where his mother's funeral is to be held, refusing even to sire the wheelchair-bound Sheila home. She leaves on her own, only to find herself utterly helpless when her chair breaks down on an unfamiliar street.
Tanga's admiration of comedian Billy Connolly is an early signal that finding amusement in the Flynns' forehead-smacking escapades is an intended response. Mullan has a strong way with dialogue, and his actors deliver suitably farcical readings, though the proffered subtitles inexplicably extend their function as translators of deep brogues into full-on censorship. In one ludicrous moment, an exasperated cry of "Fuck!" becomes the white-bread exclamation, "I can't believe it!" We'll wager that's not exactly what was intended.
There's more at work here, however, than the desire to be "A Fish Called Wanda" in a black armband. Mullan's script ultimately takes a turn for the serious that -- despite a few excusable, easily ignored moments of symbolic bombast -- is relievedly responsible in its treatment of vigilante justice.
Emotionally conflicted Catholics in crisis, the Flynns aren't orphans, exactly: They're latch-key kids to whom the blessed Virgin Mary is a less-than-helpful, largely absent parent. Their law-flouting misadventures and booze-swilling suffering may be straight out of a Scottish joke, but Mullan is unafraid to set them up with a good shot of the hard stuff when he has to.