Director: Bill Forsyth
Screenplay: Bill Forsyth
Producers: Bill Forsyth
Starring: Robert Buchanan, Billy Greenlees, John Gordon Sinclair, John Hughes
BBFC Certification: 12
Duration: 93 mins
The films of Bill Forsyth occupy a strange and unique place in the world of cinema. The self-effacing Scottish filmmaker is one of a very small minority who can truly be said to have carved out their own sub-genre of films that simply could not be the work of anyone else. Usually based around very small ideas, Forsyth’s work is characterised by a distinctive sense of humour that often borders on (and occasionally crosses over into) the absurd and the surreal, wittily esoteric dialogue and episodic structures that somehow still pull together into a cohesive whole. Although some may lazily label Forsyth’s films as ‘cosy’ or ‘sweet’, they are in fact a beguiling combination of warm and unsettling; full of the comfortably recognisable but peppered with non-sequiturs and moments of unexpected darkness. This fascinating approach has won Forsyth a devoted cult following, for whom this BFI re-release of his debut feature That Sinking Feeling will be a dream come true and the satisfying culmination of a decades-long quest.
Fans of Gregory’s Girl and Local Hero, undoubtedly Forsyth’s two best-loved films, will have some idea of what to expect from That Sinking Feeling, but while it shares many attributes with Forsyth’s later work this unpolished opening statement is noticeably wackier while also venturing into darker territory. The story concerns a group of bored, penniless and frustrated Glaswegians (although Forsyth’s tongue-in-cheek opening caption claims this story takes place in a fictional town called Glasgow and any similarity to real towns of the same name is purely coincidental) whose perpetual unemployment has driven them to consider suicide, albeit half-heartedly. Their desire to find a way out of the dirty doldrums of 70s Scotland preoccupies them to the extent that they finally hatch a criminal plan to steal a batch of stainless steel sinks, which they know they can sell on for a good price. All they need is a committed gang, a van big enough to contain the ill-gotten gains, and a way to distract the guard.
The stage seems set for a comic action caper but Forsyth never aims for thrills and instead seems more interested in generating laughs frequently at the expense of credibility, even as he slyly accentuates the socio-economic elements that are so crucial to the characters’ actions. This is made clear immediately by the film’s wonderful opening scene in which Robert Buchanan’s protagonist Ronnie delivers a monologue to a military statue in the public park. His words are filled with delusional aspirations but the speech quickly spirals downwards towards its true point as Ronnie wails despairingly ‘Why haven’t I got a job!’ His subsequent route out of the park shows us his lack of direction in the most literal sense. This funny but powerful scene will still feel relevant to many today but its context is firmly rooted in the late 70s and That Sinking Feeling never fails to remind us at every turn, be it through clothes, hairstyles or music, that it is very much a 70s film. The reference point that springs to mind, aside from the rest of Forsyth’s oeuvre, is the BBC’s brilliant Play for Today series of the 70s and 80s, which gave upcoming writers a chance to examine the state of the country and its citizens from all sorts of angles. It is not just the gloriously grainy cinematography that makes this comparison so glaring. Those plays frequently mixed humour with social comment to strong effect, as Forsyth does here.
It’s fair to say that That Sinking Feeling is fitfully hilarious but not everything hits the mark. There are a few real groaners that betray Forsyth’s love of a corny, old-fashioned gag (“… one key work: Sink” says Ronnie announcing his plan to the gang, at which point everyone slides downwards in their chairs) and some extraordinarily broad sequences involving male members of the gang dressing in drag to distract the factory guard. Not only do these scenes include the least convincing drag acts since Nuns on the Run but they are played with such over-enthusiastic amateurish gusto that they feel like a bad Crackerjack sketch has somehow found its way into the mix. It is testament to the strange appeal of the film that an even more unlikely and extraordinarily dark (though colourfully played) plot strand involving a chemistry student trapping his van-driving employer in a long-term coma by way of an untested potion slipped into a thermos of tea, is actually one of the strongest and funniest parts of the film. It is this commitment to laughs by whatever means that pulls the seemingly disparate elements together into a film that somehow makes perfect sense as a whole. No-one believes it but this is, remember, a fictional town called Glasgow, perhaps situated on a fictional planet called Earth.
Forsyth would refine his comedic approach in later films. The wandering penguins of Gregory’s Girl, the webbed toes of Local Hero; all had a sort of internal logic and plausibility that did not distract from or discredit the central narrative. Those films were also, to an extent, realist fantasies but they were recognisably taking place in our own world. In That Sinking Feeling the plot runs evermore wild as it progresses and it is in accepting this approach and going with it that the film reveals its charms. Subsequent watches, when the viewer is prepared for the unusual tone, will likely see viewers warming to it more. There’ll likely still be things individual critics would discard (I’d still like to see those drag scenes snipped out) but everything contributes to the film’s deliberately confounding and uniquely appealing mix.
It is this very uniqueness that has made That Sinking Feeling such a holy grail for so many people and they rightfully refused to accept any substitutes. A previous DVD release initially saw Forsyth fans turning handsprings until they got the disc home to discover, horror of horrors, that it was the redubbed version. The strong Scottish accents of Forsyth’s young actors were deemed too difficult to understand for the American market and so the dialogue was redubbed and it was this bastardised version that was offered up to hungry fans of the original, who rebelled en masse with scathing internet reviews with headlines such as ‘Heartbroken’! Such is the strength of feeling toward Forsyth and his work that finally, after a long wait, the full, unaltered original is available once more on one of the most generous and handsome BFI releases out there and the previous pressings now reside unbought in charity shops or at the bottom of skips.
It’s fair to say that Forsyth would go on to make better films than That Sinking Feeling but this ultra-low-budget debut is an exhilaratingly independent-spirited beginning for a director who would one day go on to major success and ultimately to work with proper Hollywood stars, mainly those called Burt (Lancaster in Local Hero, Reynolds in Breaking In)! After his poorly received sequel to Gregory’s Girl, Gregory’s Two Girls, Forsyth took a break from filmmaking which is still ongoing, despite frequent rumours of a new project in the works. In the meantime however, Forsyth is kept in the spotlight by his devoted fans and their continued demand for his work to be made available. Most prominent among these fans is critic Mark Kermode, who makes no secret of his love of Forsyth’s work and who, along with Forsyth himself, makes two treasurable contributions to this re-release in the shape of an entertaining and informative commentary track and an amusing short piece about the film’s budget, in which Forsyth hauls out the actual paperwork from the time. It all adds to the immense charm of this near-mythical cult film whose wide availability after all these years can only be cause for celebration.
That Sinking Feeling is released on dual format DVD and Blu-ray by BFI Flipside on 21st April 2014. The extraordinarily generous package includes a full length commentary from Bill Forsyth and Mark Kermode, an interview with Kermode and Forsyth about the film’s budget, a 20 minute interview with the film’s star Robert Buchanan, Forsyth’s acceptance film for the lifetime achievement BAFTA and four short films in which Forsyth had a hand (John Schorstein’s KH-4 and Mirror, which star Forsyth, Oscar Marzaroli’s documentary Glasgow 1980, edited by Forsyth, and Forsyth’s own Islands of the West. Between them these short films total an hour and 45 minutes. There is also an option to watch the film with its dubbed dialogue track made for the American market. All in all, it’s one of the most impressive packages I’ve ever come across.