Writer: Alan Sharp and Michael Caton-Jones
Director: Michael Caton-Jones
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
20 years ago, no one wanted to make stories about women, that, director Michael Caton-Jones explained, is why it has taken so long to bring his adaptation of Alan Warner’s novel to the screen. There have been offers along the way to relocate it to the home counties and to alter the dynamic, but Caton-Jones insisted this would be always be a Scottish story about a particular time and place. When he began the project, he joked, the 1990s-based Our Ladies was a contemporary drama and while its smartphone free world may seem retro, the energy fizzes right off the screen.
Five Catholic schoolgirls from Fort William are granted a trip to Edinburgh to perform in a school choir competition, but Orla, Chell, Manda, Kylah and Fionnula have other ideas, they want to get drunk and meet boys. Running riot in the city underlying tensions emerge as cracks start to appear in old friendships and, as Fionnula gets close to Head Girl Kay, secrets emerge that will change their group forever.
Caton-Jones may have had to wait two decades to bring Our Ladies to the screen, but he should take comfort in knowing it has been worth the wait. The extensive preparations mean the film feels instantly alive and from the moment the audience meets the group as they get ready for school we are drawn into their fun-loving world. They are (mostly) brazen, shameless and tons of fun, exuding the kind of confidence that only teenage freedom can bring while grasping any crazy opportunity that comes their way.
In just 24-hours the men of Edinburgh are terrorised, virginities are lost, sexualities explored and multiple drinks consumed, and that’s before they even make it to the competition at 5pm. But Caton-Jones leaves plenty of room for the pathos in Warner’s novels, those painful moments of jealousy and separation that at first sit quietly beneath their bravado, becoming more vital as the story unfolds and the events of this single day opens out – like The History Boys – into a knowledge of their varied futures.
At heart Our Ladies is a character study and it is the individual stories of each girl as well as their collective history that hold the craziness in check. Eve Austin (Kay), Tallulah Greive (Orla), Abigail Lawrie (Fionnula), Sally Messham (Manda), Rona Morison (Chell) and Marli Siu (Kylah) may not get equal screen time but are all excellent as the raucous schoolgirls who seem far older than their years, creating a genuine sense of longstanding friendship and rivalry. Austin and Lawrie are particularly good as girls from different sets finding common ground, while Messham’s Manda suggests a softer heart beneath the hard exterior.
Caton-Jones hasn’t seen the National Theatre of Scotland’s adaption of Warner’s novel which came to the West End in 2017, but the vibrancy of these characters feels just as engaging on the big screen as they did on stage and in print. Technology and fashion may have changed but teenagers exploring their identity remains the same. The energy dips slightly towards the end, and although Our Ladies has taken longer to get made than the age of any of the characters, this is one daytrip you won’t want to miss.
The BFI London Film Festival runs from 2 October to 13 October