Our Ladies (15)****


IF your idea of an Edinburgh-set film about school girl larks is The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, you might want to have a very stiff G&T before watching Michael Caton-Jones’ comedy drama. If the mother of a teenage girl, make that two. If a dad, bring the bottle.

Adapted from Alan Warner’s novel The Sopranos about a school choir from the Highlands taking a day trip to Edinburgh to sing in a competition, Our Ladies had its Scottish premiere this weekend at the Glasgow Film Festival where it played to sold-out houses.

The film’s Broxburn-born director, whose cv includes Memphis Belle, Scandal, and Rob Roy, has been waiting 20 years to bring the story to the screen. Among the changes he resisted was to switch the location to England. To Caton-Jones, this was a Scottish picture from first to last, a claim he makes good on with a stunning opening scene taking in the snow-topped mountains soaring above Fort William.

By the edge of a loch are five young women, all dressed in white, like Greek goddesses with a preternaturally high tolerance for the cold. It is 1996, and Spring, our narrator Orla (Tallulah Greive) tells us, when the thoughts of young ladies turn to boys.

After this peaceful picture of feminine sophistication, Caton-Jones rounds up his gang of girls. Besides Orla, who has recently finished treatment for leukaemia, we meet Fionnoula (Abigail Lawrie), sharp-tongued, angry and terrified of a future that might involve an early marriage and children. Then there is Manda (Sally Messham) who dreams of precisely that scenario; fatherless Chell (Rona Morison); Kay (Eve Austin), head girl, doctor's daughter and ostracised for being well off; and finally, coolest of them all, Kylah (Marli Siu), a girl who can rock out to the Buzzcocks’ Ever Fallen in Love With (Someone You Shouldn’t Have) with the best of them.

Mention in despatches here to Roddy Hart and Tommy Reilly for a pitch perfect soundtrack that includes a female version of In a Big Country that is a belter. Be sure to stay at the end of the picture for it, and a surprise cameo.

The screenplay fills in the backstory of each character before sending them wild in Edinburgh for a couple of hours. What the gals get up to you will have to see, and believe, for yourself. To quote the BBFC’s (15) rating certificate, Our Ladies contains “very strong language, strong sex references, nudity, sex”. Just your average Saturday afternoon in Edinburgh, then. Thank goodness they didn’t come to Glasgow.

Auld Reekie looks magnificent, with Caton-Jones, courtesy of some geographical jiggery-pokery, managing to cover the nicest parts of the capital (and a sauna). Also looking bonny was Kate Dickie, playing the unfortunate nun in charge of the school party. Due to the all-female central line-up, comparisons have inevitably been made between Our Ladies and Derry Girls, the Channel 4 sitcom. Lisa McGee’s creation is consistently laugh out loud funny, however, whereas Our Ladies tends to raise smiles. The audience at the Glasgow Film Theatre would probably disagree with me on that one.

Moreover, the characters in Derry Girls are more believable. The girls in Our Ladies are like the female characters in Sex and the City, a touch too stylised and contrived to be truly convincing. As for the language and references to sex, you did not have to be Mary Whitehouse to find them a bit much at times. Some of the funniest parts, indeed, were the sweetest.

What Derry Girls and Our Ladies share is a big, beating generous heart and a genuine affection, make that love, for young women at the point in their lives when they are at their most brave, before they settle down and conform to what society expects of them. You want to cheer their fearlessness, their camaraderie, their sheer lust for life that ought to come with being young.

Respect to Caton-Jones for holding out to make the film he wanted, and to his uniformly superb young cast who give it their all. A refreshingly bold reboot of the coming of age story.

On general release April 24