Set in ’90s Scotland, Michael Caton-Jones’ winning comedy-drama sees a group of Catholic girls cut loose.
Let’s call Our Ladies one of the new great British teen movies. Its journey to the screen is even older than its riotous protagonists: director and co-writer Michael Caton-Jones first optioned the rights to Alan Warner’s 1998 novel ‘The Sopranos’ over 20 years ago.
The film charts 24 hours in the lives of five working class friends, all nearing the end of their Catholic school days in Fort William, a small town in the western Scottish Highlands. There’s Orla (Tallulah Greive), a leukemia recoveree; Kylah (Marli Siu), the frontwoman of an aspiring garage band of useless boys; Chell (Rona Morison), an impoverished girl haunted by the drowning of her father; Fionnula (Abigail Lawrie), the de facto group leader secretly coming to terms with her sexuality; and Manda (Sally Messham), who’s feeling the cold shoulder from once-close Fionnula.
There’s also Kay (Eve Austin), a derided, wealthier gang member destined for university and prospects beyond reach for the main crew. They all head on a school trip to Edinburgh to compete in a choir competition, but are more interested in partying, drinking and chasing random hook-ups than they are winning. The day’s misbehaviour and surprise romantic developments spell drama and further debauchery for their return home.
An unrelated, Olivier-winning stage adaptation of ‘The Sopranos’ had notable success in recent years, and Our Ladies finally got the green light just prior to the hit status of tonally similar Northern Irish sitcom Derry Girls, which also follows unruly Catholic schoolgirls but is otherwise very different in plotting and characters.
Looking at the project from a more contextual vantage, there are justified discussions in contemporary film culture about who should be allowed to tell what stories. Without Caton-Jones’ long-held devotion to getting this made, the immediate optics of a male filmmaker helming a tale of young women eager to get shagged admittedly aren’t great.
Thankfully, this man is firmly on the side of these girls, and he avoids any kind of moralising or shaming over their abrasive qualities, gutter- minded patter, casual cruelty and, yes, extreme horniness. Direction and cinematography avoid the hyper-sexualisation of bodies, while still allowing for characters to be sexual in the ways they find empowering. And with the dynamic ensemble, every single one giving a star-making turn, lightning-in-a-bottle chemistry and palpable authenticity are achieved with aplomb.
To avoid factors like prevalent mobile phones, the film is explicitly set in 1996, in the decade the book was originally published. This is also wise given how Fionnula’s issues concerning coming out are rooted in the particularities of ’90s Britain. That said, other period inconsistencies prove Our Ladies’ lone bugbear: two massive hit songs from the next two years prominently feature, while signage for a Harry Potter merch shop is repeatedly visible.
These complaints are pedantic, though, as they don’t stall the film’s racing momentum,