Dir: Michael Caton-Jones. Starring: Tallulah Greive, Abigail Lawrie, Rona Morison, Sally Messham, Marli Siu, Eve Austin. 15, 105 mins.
“Our story is older than the glens and hills,” teenage girl Orla (Tallulah Greive) recites in the opening moments of Our Ladies. She’s dressed in fair-maiden white, her bare feet delicately balanced across the pebbles of a Highland loch – a pale, wraith-like figure, but with a look in her eyes that’s both sharp and mischievous.
She’s flanked by four other girls, all dressed the same: Finnoula (Abigail Lawrie), Chell (Rona Morison), Manda (Sally Messham) and Kylah (Marli Siu). But they are not, as it might seem, awaiting the return of their betrothed from battle, or simply withering away, their chastity held close to them like a pearl in its shell. The story they tell is not one of love, loyalty, or sacrifice – it’s one of desire. Or, to phrase it more on their terms, unquenchable horniness.
Michael Caton-Jones’s comedy, based on Alan Warner’s novel The Sopranos (unrelated to a certain mob show), is endearing in the way it frames youthful sexual discovery as an age-old tradition. It’s a riot of a film, relatable both to those who may share in the experience of growing up in rural Scotland and to those who just remember fondly what it’s like to feel such wild abandon. These teenage girls, all students at a Catholic school in the Scottish coastal town of Fort William in 1996, have a near-myopic focus on sex. Every conversation drifts into innuendo. Every man is sized up as a potential conquest.
And when they’re shuttled off to Edinburgh by their teacher, Sister Condron (a brilliantly funny Kate Dickie), for a choir competition, they use their precious few hours of freedom to run riot. The characters here feel truthful largely because the cast are so willing to channel the ecstatic social dynamics of teen girls who still view the adult world as something new and exotic – though that unrestrained giddiness might read like a human tornado to outside observers. It’s a state amplified by the relative naivete they all possess as teens living during a time “before mobile phones and social media changed everything forever”.
It’d be all too easy for a film like Our Ladies, especially one written and directed by men (Caton-Jones collaborated with Alan Sharp on its script) to chastise its characters for rushing into potentially dangerous situations – the girls think nothing, for example, of accepting an invitation back to the flat of two explicitly creepy men. Or even if the film were too smart for victim-blaming, it might have twisted those scenes into tragic invocations of the dangers women face on a daily basis. But the pleasure of Our Ladies lies in the fantasy. Its purpose is not to reflect harsh reality but to see things purely through the eyes of its protagonists, who are all young enough to still view themselves as undefeatable and indestructible.
And Caton-Jones certainly doesn’t mistake that wilfulness for pure naivety. The girls of Our Ladies still recognise the limits of their own youthful opportunity – that as working-class women living in rural Scotland, they’ll spend a lifetime being underestimated and undervalued by those around them. They hold a simmering resentment towards Kay (Eve Austin), the doctor’s daughter whose path leads straight to university. And there’s a telling way that Orla, who’s in remission from leukaemia, shrugs off all suggestion that her “miracle trip” to Lourdes has made her some kind of favoured soul. But what’s ultimately so joyous about Our Ladies is all the small ways they rebel against their circumstances – while the world wants them to focus on the destination of their lives, they’ve chosen to revel in the journey.