That Sinking Feeling – (1979, Bill Forsyth)

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Of all the Cinema Shame confessions I’ve made this is probably the most embarrassing. Up until a couple of years ago I didn’t even know Bill Forsyth’s comedy That Sinking Feeling existed. To make matters worse I’m Scottish, so I have no excuse for not having even heard of his debut feature. In my defence while growing up in the 80s’ Forsyth’s most famous films Gregory’s Girl (1981) and Local Hero (83) aired regularly on television. Occasionally Comfort and Joy (84) would appear in the early hours on STV but I can’t recall That Sinking Feeling ever appearing in the schedules.

It probably didn’t help That Sinking Feeling has only recently become available in its original form on DVD through the BFI’s Flipside series focusing on little seen British movies. Prior to that the only previous release featured the awful re-recorded audio track used for the film’s international release replacing the actors thick Glaswegian accents with middle-class voices and dubbed with all the skill and care usually reserved for kung-fu movies. For a long time this was the only version available.

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A tongue-in-cheek disclaimer at the start of the film claims any similarities to the real city of Glasgow are coincidental,  but it’s clear Forsyth is making a serious point here about the bleak prospects facing working class youngsters at a time when Scottish industries were in decline. That Sinking Feeling wears its social commentary lightly though and gives audiences a first taste of the understated often absurd humour of Bill Forsyth. Essentially the film is a series of comic set-pieces utilising Forsyth’s wonderful use of dialogue, and setting up sight gags that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the silent era.

Unemployed teenager Ronnie (Robert Buchanan) reflects on his place in the world and decides drowning himself in a bowl of cereal is no way to go out. Instead he decides he can make a small fortune by robbing a warehouse full of stainless steel sinks.  Ronnie enlists his equally unemployed mates to pull of an elaborately planned albeit eccentric heist. There’s Vic (John Hughes) and Wal (Billy Greenlees), wannabe master-thief Andy (John Gordon Sinclair), and Bobby (Derek Millar) whose homemade chemistry experiments have led to the invention of a drug which causes suspended animation.  It is to Forsyth’s credit that Bobby’s scientific breakthrough never feels incongruous even though it’s essentially science fiction. “Just think, waking up to start a new life in the Glasgow of 2068. The ring road will be finished” says a doctor later in the film and this mixture of absurdity and melancholy runs throughout Forsyth’s early Scottish films.

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People often compare Forsyth to Alexander Mackendrick for obvious reasons but there’s a hint of Michael Powell in there as well. Powell made two great films in Scotland The Edge of the World (1937) and I Know Where I’m Going! (1945) and both have great affection for its people and a sense of the landscape defining their place in the world.

Very glad to have finally seen That Sinking Feeling and might well follow up by re-watching Bill Forsyth’s later American films which I haven’t seen since they came out. Particularly his last Hollywood movie Being Human (1994) which flopped spectacularly despite the presence of Robin Williams but I remember being an interesting if flawed epic.

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