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MacKinnon, Gillies (1948-)


Main image of MacKinnon, Gillies (1948-)

Gillies MacKinnon was one of the most prolific and versatile British directors of the 1990s. The subject-matter of his films is notably cosmopolitan, exploring aspects of disparate societies past and present in Scotland, Ireland, Morocco and elsewhere.

MacKinnon was born in Glasgow on 8 January 1948. After studying mural painting at Glasgow School of Art, he became an art teacher and professional cartoonist, and spent six months travelling with a nomadic tribe in the Sahara. Anxious to consolidate his interest in film, he studied at Middlesex Polytechnic in the 1970s and the National Film and Television School in the early 1980s. His graduation short Passing Glory, an austere recreation of the Glasgow of his youth, was premiered at the 1986 Edinburgh International Film Festival, where it won the first Scottish Film Prize. MacKinnon's early preference for bleak realist content married with tableau vivant visuals is evident in his feature debut Conquest of the South Pole (1989), which imaginatively transferred Manfred Karge's German play about heroism and urban hopelessness to the docks of Leith. MacKinnon cemented his critical reputation with two remarkable television films: Needle (1990), a salutary exploration of the lure of heroin, brilliantly scripted by Jimmy McGovern; and the equally powerful The Grass Arena (1991), adapted from the autobiography of John Healy, a boxer turned alcoholic turned chess master portrayed by Mark Rylance. The film won several prizes, including the Edinburgh Film Festival's Michael Powell Award for Best British Film.

MacKinnon's first three features make much use of angled shots, high-impact editing, and a restless camera. A more commercially accessible variant of the style emerged in The Playboys, a popular Irish comedy set in the 1950s, made with American finance and American leads easily swamped by Albert Finney's turn as a lovelorn policeman. The tragic-comic plot about love and jealousy offered little that was new, but the film's American success brought MacKinnon results, including an episode of the television series The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, and A Simple Twist of Fate, a sentimental update of George Eliot's Silas Marner, with Steve Martin as the miser redeemed by a child's love.

Better and more personal films resulted once he returned to Britain. Small Faces (1996), a convincing snapshot of Glasgow gang and art school sub-cultures in 1968, co-scripted with his brother Billy and relying on a cast chosen largely from Glasgow teenagers, shines with authenticity and emotional truth. Trojan Eddie (1996), written by Billy Roche, switched to contemporary Ireland for a rumbustious, unsentimental tale of a small-time market peddler dreaming of the big time. Mackinnon engaged with more sombre matters in his powerful and poignant Regeneration (1997), based on the first of Pat Barker's trilogy of First World War novels. Set in the Craiglockhart Military Hospital in 1917, the film cleverly approaches Dr William Rivers' treatment of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon and other shell-shocked soldiers through a narrative maze that blurs the distinctions between doctors and patients. The brilliantly staged opening offers one of cinema's most vivid recreations of wartime trenches; but nowhere does MacKinnon push for his effects. MacKinnon's hectic output of the 1990s concluded with the quirky Hideous Kinky (UK/France, 1998), an adaptation of Esther Freud's autobiographical novel about a young hippy mum in the 1970s seeking fulfilment in Morocco. MacKinnon neither sneers at nor venerates his irritating heroine, and John de Borman's flamboyant cinematography allows us to share her fascination with the sun-drenched exoticism of Morocco; but the film's viewpoint finally settles with her two pushy, precocious, and irredeemably English daughters, who just want to go home.

The Playboys excepted, MacKinnon's chosen path towards thoughtful, idiosyncratic films made without much consideration of market viability has never led to large audiences, and much of his recent work has been for British television. Following The Escapist, a surprisingly routine revenge thriller, Pure (2002) marked a powerful return to the world of heroin addiction, but the critically acclaimed film proved too grim to succeed at the cinema box-office. Wider success greeted The Last of the Blonde Bombshells (2000), a deservedly popular and witty small-screen drama about the reunion of an all-girl swing band, written by Alan Plater. MacKinnon reunited with Jimmy McGovern for "Gunpowder, Treason and Plot" (2004), a bloodthirsty BBC mini-series tracing the turbulent reign of Mary Queen of Scots and the Guy Fawkes plot that would have blown her son James I and the English Parliament to kingdom come. Bold casting and atmospheric direction in the treatment of Mary's story are followed by an oddly contrived representation of the Gunpowder plot, marred by weak writing and over-wrought stylistic devices.

Consistently adventurous in form and theme, the best of MacKinnon's films exemplify that most elusive of creatures: an inventive, entertaining British art cinema - though without a notable box-office success it remains uncertain how long the creature will be able to stay alive.

Kermode, Mark, 'The American Connection', Sight and Sound, June 1992, p. 29
MacKinnon, Gillies, 'Small Faces', in Duncan Petrie (ed.), Inside Stories: Diaries of British Film-makers at Work (London: BFI Publishing, 1996)
McKibbin, Tony, 'Gillies MacKinnon: recurring themes', Film West, Jan. 1998, pp. 36-7
Petrie, Duncan, Screening Scotland (London: BFI Publishing, 2000)

Geoff Brown and Jonathan Murray, Directors in British and Irish Cinema

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