Review: Our Ladies (2019)

Michael Caton-Jones’ Our Ladies takes Trainspotting and turns it into a film about five Catholic schoolgirls on an adventure. Having debuted at the 2019 London Film Festival (LFF), it is one of many films that had to wait patiently for a cinema release, but this energetic, coming-of-age story is exactly what we need to see after having sat at home for two years. Taking place in Fort William and Edinburgh in 1996, it tells the story of a field trip of a Catholic choir who travels to Edinburgh to perform. Part of the choir is a mischievous friend group of five girls, whose adventures in Edinburgh reawaken nostalgic images of the 90s: calling from a payphone, asking your friends bring back CDs from the big city, school bands playing in dilapidated buildings while smoking cigarettes, learning things from ‘nudie mags’… The list  goes on. 

The film opens and closes with a shot of the girls in long white dresses against a backdrop of mountains and lakes – a breath-taking shot of the Scottish landscape. While this seems to be saying ‘This Is Scotland,’ the narration shows a different side to Scottish life: “It was springtime, and we had one thing on our minds: boys.” Most of all, Caton-Jones’ film is a complex representation of friendship between teenage girls. While tensions run high and everyone develops their own interests as they begin to think about their futures, friendship prevails. This is particularly apt in portraying friendships that have started in childhood – the girls have grown together, but they’re slowly growing apart, with different interests and dreams. The film also explores the malleability of the relationships you have with those around you; despite the girls’ initial prejudice towards their wealthier classmate Kay (Eve Austin), they soon find that they have more in common with her than they think. 

Pinned on the wall of our protagonist Orla’s (Tallulah Grieve) room, elevated alongside a picture of Jesus, hangs a poster of Leonardo DiCaprio. On the morning of the field trip, Orla says a prayer wishing for no arguing among her friends, for finding a pair of dominatrix-style boots and for losing her virginity. Balancing religious life and partying, the girls pose a more nuanced and realistic example of religious youth, rather than enforcing the stagnant stereotype of religious teenagers as innocent wallflowers with unwavering morals. More than that, Our Ladies is just a pleasure to watch. Orla and her friends embrace the big city with open arms and let go of their reservations, performing at a karaoke bar and following ridiculously conceited men into their urban man caves. They navigate these adventures without the chronic naivety that so often plaques cinematic depictions of teenage girls.

While an exuberant depiction of an adventure, by no means does the film overlook serious issues. Orla battles with leukaemia and reflects on her moments of isolation in a cancer ward.  Without a second thought, Manda (Sally Messham) is ready to confront whoever says a bad word about Orla. The film also explores the tensions between classmates from different financial situations. Poorer characters are labelled by others as ‘tinkers,’ while wealthier  classmates such as Kay are dismissed by the girls out of principle, seen as unworthy of their friendship. When the girls’ classmate Michelle (Claire Gordon) admits that she cannot afford to join the others at a pub, Kay offers to pay for her drink. When Michelle declines the offer, saying that she doesn’t want to be a charity case, Kay insists that it’s not that much money. Despite Kay’s good intentions, this is inconsiderate and belittles Michelle’s issues. 

In many ways, Our Ladies is a coming-of-age story focusing on sexual awakening and exploration. Orla seeks to have her first sexual experience and has planned it all to a T. One can’t help but to find her shy enthusiasm adorable, as she meets a boy and gives him money for the train, urging him to come and see her the same night. Perhaps the most interesting subplot for me was Finnoula’s (Abigail Lawrie) and Kay’s relationship, as they accidentally bump into each other in Edinburgh and their conversation brushes upon the topics of wealth, future and sexuality. At learning of Kay’s queerness, Finnoula’s fascination and awkwardness are palpable and relatable. Finnoula navigates her first queer experience carefully but with overflowing curiosity. At the same time, the film depicts the complexities of teenage life: Kay reveals that she is pregnant, but she is also queer. This contradicts the girls’ initial preconception that money makes an easy life, and challenges the often flat, archetypal depictions of female characters as ‘the pregnant one’ or ‘the queer one.’ 

Michael Caton-Jones’ film depicts girls with personal quirks and prejudices rather than idealising them as epitomes of virtuosity. In an LFF interview, Caton-Jones reflected on the difficulty he experienced in pitching the film to studios. In an industry dominated by films with  male leads, his idea was branded as unmarketable. What is remarkable about Our Ladies is how it confronts the usual polarised film archetypes where girls are either boy crazy or infallible feminist icons. An honest depiction of Scottish girls through an unromanticised lens, Our Ladies is a wholesome and unapologetic celebration of female friendship and certainly deserves a place on your to-watch list for feel-good films. 

[Kristiina Kangasluoma – @overthefrogwall]

[Image credit: IMDB]

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