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Category: Burns News
Article Date: May 28, 2004 | Publication: The Scotsman | Author: Andrew Eaton

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LAST NIGHT, assuming all went to plan, a small piece of history was made - for the first time in six decades Robert Burns had a starring role in a movie. Red Rose, which premiered at Ayr Racecourse, is the first film about Burns since Comin' Thro the Rye in 1947. Back then, Burns was played by Terence Alexander, better remembered as Charlie Hungerford, the retired millionaire in Bergerac. Yes, that's how long it's been.

For those who have followed this story for a while it marks the end of a long race. Back in 1999, four separate Burns movies were in the works, with Ewan McGregor, Johnny Depp and Dougray Scott all talked up as potential bards. Scriptwriters included Alan Sharp (Rob Roy) and Danny Boyle (Trainspotting), and a Burns blockbuster seemed a real possibility.

As it turns out, Red Rose is a more low-key affair, made by a small independent company, Palm Tree. The leading man is a little-known actor called Michael E Rodgers (you may have spotted him briefly in The Patriot). The film's Scottish premiere, oddly, coincides with news from Cannes that one of the other projects, Burns - based on Sharp's script and starring Gerard Butler - is finally going into production. The other two seem dead in the water: director David Hayman has been trying to make a Burns film since the mid-1990s but has made little progress, while Boyle's script was abandoned by Ecosse, the makers of Mrs Brown, four years ago.

Burns producer Andrew Boswell says he is aware of Red Rose but won't see it for "legal reasons" (ie in case Palm Tree accuse him of stealing ideas). But talking to Robbie Moffat, Red Rose's director, it's clear that rivalry still exists between the projects. "I've known Alan for a long time and his script is not going to be any better than ours," he says. "It's just hype." As for Butler, whom he claims was also put forward for Red Rose, "I don't think he's a very good actor. And when you look at him side on, he's got no chin. Just as well they gave him a mask in Phantom of the Opera - because he needs it."

This kind of comment is typical of Moffat. Outspoken often to the point of rudeness, he has made few friends in the Scottish film industry. Ask him why Scotland hasn't produced a Burns film in 57 years and you'll get a vitriolic attack on Scottish Screen's supposed bias towards bleak "urban dramas" such as Ratcatcher and Sweet Sixteen. Scottish Screen, he claims, refuses to look at Palm Tree scripts following a funding row several years ago, during which he accused it of cronyism (all Palm Tree projects are now funded from London). "They haven't got a clue about Scottish culture," he says. "I come from a housing scheme but I don't really want to see movies about that and that's all we seem to get from them. They've all got Ken Loachitis. If social realism is what they want to make they should be working in TV, not movies. When are they going to realise there's life outside Glasgow and Edinburgh?"

Ask elsewhere and you'll get a more measured response. "You can only speculate," says David Bruce, the author of the book Scotland: The Movie. "There have been films about Bonnie Prince Charlie and Mary Queen of Scots. Are poets not quite as heroic as princes and queens? Probably not. You might equally ask why there aren't films about Sir Walter Scott. Perhaps these are people who lend themselves more to documentary than fiction."

"Period dramas are expensive to make," says Andrew Boswell simply. "They're one of the hardest genres to get off the ground. It's only in recent years that there has been money floating around."

Bruce wonders if this, combined with the fact that "maybe you require an indigenous filmmaker to take it seriously", may have been the problem. "There are aspects of Burns's life that will travel internationally but there are other aspects - his poetry, knowledge of the man himself - that won't, or haven't historically," adds Boswell. "The key is to create a film that is true to the man himself but be satisfying enough as a story for those who know nothing about him."

For Alan Sharp, the answer was to write about Burns as a young man, focusing on his love affair with Clarinda (the film's original title). Moffat focuses on the final years of Burns's life, and is particularly interested in his politics - Burns was sympathetic to the French revolution yet his job in excise meant he had to swear loyalty to the king, a conflict that made his employers nervous.

It doesn't quite work. While Burns devotees may enjoy the attention to detail, Red Rose is a rather flat, episodic affair, often resembling the kind of mannered historical reconstructions used to spice up dry TV documentaries. The budget constraints are, perhaps unavoidably, all too obvious - scene after scene is shot in claustrophobic close-up or at high angles presumably designed to hide telephone boxes.

But while Moffat's skills are no match for those of Lynne Ramsay or David Mackenzie, you have to applaud him for making the film happen, apparently in the face of industry indifference. "People have been talking about making Burns movies for years," he says. "We've done it."

Copyright 2004 The Scotsman Publications Ltd.


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