considers the pitfalls and triumphs in adapting The Big Man for the screen.
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ith a budget of around £15 million pounds. Palace Pictures production of The Big Man is easily the most ambitious film so far to be made in Scotland. with a Scottish subject. The nationalist lobby will be less gratified. however. that it was deemed necessary to have an English director and leading lady. and an Irish leading man. in order to translate William McIlvanney‘s controversial novel to the screen.
Outside Scotland. though. and especially in the crucial American market. where the film must do well ifthe kind of money invested in it is to be recouped. that will be an irrelevance. In those terms. Liam Neeson and Joanne Whalley-Kilmer are potentially bankable names. while David Leland. who scored a substantial success with Wish You Were Here for Palace. welcomed the opportunity to eradicate the bad taste left by his first Hollywood venture. Checking Out. which quietly went belly-up.
Billy Connolly. who makes an impressive major acting debut as Fast Frankie White. a small-time local crook with aspirations to be upwardly mobile. paid tribute to Leland's determination to hold on to the Scottish character of the story. as well as his ability to ‘work on a problem with you. and make sure you come at it from the right angle all the time. He‘s a great guy. and politically he‘s really hot.‘
The Big Man has its shortcomings. but Leland can justifiably claim to have fulfilled his determination to ‘put a big film on the screen. We made it as a shit-or-bust movie and I think we have done well. Throughout shooting. I tried to
maintain my imaginative notion ofwhat the film is. which is difficult. because by the time you actually come to turn the camera over on the first scene. you are absolutely knackered. That is when you have to resolve how you deal with the day to day practicalities and still keep that vision in your mind.‘
Much ofthe film realises that vision with power and integrity. while the visceral bare-knuckle fight which unemployed miner Danny Scoular undertakes in order to make some money for his family is a small masterpiece. As in the book. that climax falls well short of the real end. a problem which Leland always recognised. llis solution works well enough until the closing scenes. where it goes a little offthe rails.
Several alternative endings were tried and rejected. but the one they eventually chose does not seem quite right. As in the earlier scene where the people of'l‘hornbank turn out in droves to cheer off their champion as he leaves for the fight. the massed ranks of villagers who watch the postponed showdown between Danny and bookie Matt Mason (Ian Bannen ). who has come to exact revenge. fails to capture the essential point ofthe equivalent scenes in the book.
Instead ofthe genuine but unspoken (male) communion ofthe book. the film-makers ‘- Leland and script-writer Don MacPherson — turn it into a kind ofgala day. and miss the point in the process. That is partly a consequence of an enlarged role for Whalley-Kilmcr as Danny‘s wife Beth. partly a failure ofnerve in replicating the bleak. unresolved ambiguity of the novel‘s ending. and partly. I think. a cultural misunderstanding
Again. though. that will not matter in the international market. where the unauthentic note it introduces will not be heard. Perhaps inevitably. given the process of adaptation itself. much of the complex argument of Mellvanney’s highly internalised narrative has been lost in the transition to film. What remains. though. is the bones ofthat narrative. and a large part of its spirit. which is perhaps as much as could be expected.
The Big Man opens the Edinburgh International Film Festii‘a/at the ()(ieon (‘i/temu, ('lerk Street (m I] August at 7.30pm.
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