Man Dancin'

Unexpectedly pleasing gangland tale cum religious play writing drama. No, really.

Released in 2003, certified UK-15. Reviewed on 29 Feb 2004 by Scott Morris
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Very occasionally expecting absolutely nothing from a film has some positive effects. My net knowledge of this latest in what for Scottish cinema counts for a torrent of releases (about three in the last six months or so, such is the state of the industry) was that it starred wife-beating anger merchant Trevor off Eastenders. Given the standard of films ex-soap stars generally go on to (witness Shane Richie's dismal failure with Shoreditch) that was also all I needed to know to write the film off. If there's one thing I hate about me (other than my penchant for needless parenthesis) it's how horribly wrong I am on so many occasions.

Trevor, or Alex Ferns as his mother would call him, stars as Jimmy Kerrigan, recently released from an Irish prison having served a stretch for gunrunning. Returning to his Glasgow home all he wants to do is take care of his hospitalised mother, get some cash together through legal means with the final goal of heading off to Spain with his younger brother Terry (Cas Harkins). His past is not so quick to desert him, and it's not long before he's invited to his previous 'employer' Donnie McGlone's (James 'I am the walrus' Cosmo) gaffe for a chat about resuming his life of crime. Jimmy politely declines, and gives the same story to local hard-boiled oddly-named cop D.I. Pancho Villers (Kenneth Cranham) after a welcome home shakedown.

All of which is welcoming thoughts for Jimmy's parole officer, Father Gabriel Flynn (Tom Georgeson). While Jimmy has been ordered to attend anger management programs run by the good Rev, Flynn would rather make use of the talents the ex-con learned during his stay at Her Majesty's pleasure, namely his expertise in drama gleaned from the prisons' forward thinking education program. His church members are putting on a frankly awful play to spread the word of the Lord, although in it's current form it couldn't spread margarine over toast. After giving his honest opinion of the work, Jimmy's left with the task of writing a new play.

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Distraction from this pressing task arrives in the shapely shape of Maria Gallagher (Jenny Foulds). While Jimmy remembers her roughly as the little girl hanging around outside his flat, now she's a big girl hanging around on street corners having been sucked into the seedy underworld of prostitution, run of course by McGlone. Things stumble along in an uncomfortable equilibrium until Jimmy takes exception to McGlone's pimps smacking Maria around. After dispensing suitable retribution to said ruffian, he informs him that Maria is off the game.

This kind of disrespect is looked on unkindly from McGlone, as it reflects badly on one's position as a crime overlord. While this is let slide with little more than a 'friendly' warning, things get a little more complex once a few of Maria's hooker friends decide to follow her example, hanging around play rehearsals with Jimmy and co. Now we have an unfortunately complicated situation where people are thinking that perhaps Jimmy is setting up his own business, and worse that McGlone has gone soft and is letting him.

From here things rapidly spiral out of any sort of control, made worse once McGlone enlists a disenchanted and still drug addled Terry to spy on his own brother. All of the ensuing unpleasantness could be avoided if there'd be some small amount of trust, but that's difficult to come by in a suspicious criminal underworld. While it fades into the background of a plot recap, the religious aspects of the script are perhaps the most noteworthy and certainly the thing that makes it rises above a standard gritty crime tale.

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From the pen of Sergio Casci, responsible for the recently acclaimed American Cousins, Man Dancin' shows the positive aspects of religion without battering you around the head with it. Given the recent furory and hubbub raised by Mel Gibson's impending Passion of the Christ it's a tad surprising that Man Dancin' hasn't made more of a splash and disappointing that more people won't be exposed to what it both a decent treatise on the nature of faith and a compelling drama.

After his release from clink Jimmy's certainly a changed man, but as to whether or not he's had a religious conversion or not is thankfully left largely untouched. He's not telling and nobody's asking. That it lies somewhere under the surface as motivation for his actions, combined with a health appetite for pissing off McGlone after his dramatic actions is perhaps the movies' greatest achievement, crediting the audience with enough perception and intelligence to make their own minds up on the religious aspects without spelling things out in big bold letters.

It's not only this that's noteworthy; it's also a very sharp, funny script. If you've ever chuckled at Billy Connolly's wry and occasionally foul mouthed delivery there's a certain amount of joy to be had from Alex Fern's unexpectedly excellent performance. He's certainly playing a familiar character, Trevor without the malice but the same tightly focused anger. If you can get over the strange absence of little Mo he's actually a hugely compelling character actor, although there's a certain lack of range in what this script calls for. Sadly the film's conclusion can't live up to the solid and surprising pace of it's opening, with the final reel tailing of to a rather disappointing ending that lacks any punch to it.

A pity, as it's only weak ending that I can pick out as any glaring flaw. Strong performances throughout especially Cosmo's menacing McGlone and an excellent soundtrack largely provided by jazz musician Tam White (also appearing in the film as Johnny Bus-Stop) make Man Dancin' an unexpected pleasure, although in a world where Rab C. Nesbitt has to be subtitled for transmission in England I have to wonder how well the film will be recieved outside of Scotland.

Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 4/5 TippyMarks.

Norman Stone
Cast list:
Alex Ferns (Jimmy Kerrigan)
Tom Georgeson (Father Gabriel Flynn)
Kenneth Cranham (D.I. Pancho Villers)
James Cosmo (Donnie McGlone)
Jenny Foulds (Maria Gallagher)
Gerald Lepkowski (Lenny Quinn)
Ron Donachie (Billy Maddison)
Cas Harkins (Terry Kerrigan)
Tam White (Johnny Bus-Stop)