Charles Gormley was an optician before he became a filmmaker. The switch happened in the late sixties, just as he was approaching his thirties. Spectacles were swapped for screenplays and Gormley found himself penning commentaries for Scottish-themed documentaries. These were mostly commissions from the Films of Scotland Committee which had been set up as a means of promoting national industry, tourism and social change. (Two of his early credits, Island of the Big Cloth and Islands of the West, have been issued onto disc by Panamint Cinema; see their Weave Me a Rainbow, Iona - Dove Across the Water and A Pride of Islands compilations.) At the same time Gormley was also working in fiction. He wrote the 1967 Children’s Film Foundation effort The Big Catch and, rather unexpectedly, would regularly commute to Amsterdam to collaborate with various members of the Dutch New Wave.
Gormley’s most common collaborator was fellow Scot Bill Forsyth. Together they co-founded Tree Films, a key provider of industrial documentaries between 1972 and 1979. Forsyth had also started out in non-fiction, primarily as an editor, though his own production company allowed a move into direction just as it had done for Gormley. Tree Films’ demise coincided with his break into features, That Sinking Feeling arriving in 1979 and swiftly followed by Gregory’s Girl a year later. By the time of his third feature, 1983’s Local Hero, Forsyth was a BAFTA-winning director and one of the great hopes for British cinema. Gormley, meanwhile, had just completed his first feature-length work as writer-director, Living Apart Together, for Channel 4.
Heavenly Pursuits was Gormley’s theatrical debut, financed by Film Four International and the National Film Finance Corporation who, incidentally, also had an involvement in Gregory’s Girl. Whether they expected another piece of Scottish whimsy in a similar vein to Forsyth (though he hated his work being labelled whimsical) is worth asking. Michael Hoffman’s Restless Natives (1985) and Cary Parker’s The Girl in the Picture (1986), starring John Gordon-Sinclair, certainly felt like they were cashing in on Local Hero’s success, but maybe that’s simply because Scottish features were so rare in the mid-eighties. Indeed, as a gentle Glasgow-set comedy-drama it’s hard for Heavenly Pursuits to escape the comparisons even if it wanted to. The fact that Gormley and Forsyth were friends and former collaborators only makes it more difficult.
The drama unfolds at a secondary school named after the Blessed Edith Semple. Tom Conti plays a teacher whose class consists of the less bright kids (including a very young Ewen Bremner), Helen Mirren is the new music teacher, and David Hayman is on the staff too. The Blessed Edith performed a miracle around the time of the First World War and now local Father Brian Pettifer is attempting to raise her to the status of Saint. Assemblies at the school involve praying for the sick and the crippled, not that Conti believes in such things. His approach to education is far more pragmatic, though things take a turn once he collapses at a bus stop. He is suffering from a soon-to-be fatal brain tumour, so soon in fact that the doctors don’t even tell him. As such he carries on in his own cynical way, trying to woo Mirren in the process and waiting, unwittingly, for circumstances to catch up with him.
Conti is thoroughly likeable in the lead role. He also manages to be entirely unassuming throughout - a pleasing contrast to his previous big screen lead, in Reuben, Reuben, for which he’d earned an Oscar nomination. Gormley, you imagine, insisted on keeping things low-key, perhaps a holdover from his years in industrial documentaries and the no-nonsense approach they demanded (much the same is true of Forsyth too). He lets his script do the talking and ensures that the actors never overpower it. The humour - and therefore appeal - derives from smart one-liners and droll asides; for all the talk of miracles, it’s what people say that matters not what happens. As such the entire film can also seem somewhat unassuming at times, but arguably that’s part of its charm.
Heavenly Pursuits is a film of minor pleasures, perfectly agreeable without ever making a genuine impact. This new DVD is its first release in the UK since a 1986 VHS and I doubt that anybody’s really missed it since then. That’s not to say that many won’t enjoy getting reacquainted, but rather that this is a film without lasting effects. It’s solidly performed and solidly put together (many of the key crew members had worked with Gormley since the documentary days and served on Forsyth’s early features too), has a witty script and makes for a charming 90 minutes of entertainment. That it doesn’t go any further than that - and achieve the levels of a Gregory’s Girl or a Local Hero - needn’t be seen as a bad thing.
Park Circus seem to be making a habit of rescuing minor Scottish-set features. Heavenly Pursuits follows Peter Mullan’s Orphans and the 1940s pair of The Brothers and Floodtide (review) onto disc, though sadly it’s an extras-free one. Nonetheless, the presentation is a pleasing one and offers the film up in its original aspect ratio (1.85:1, anamorphically enhanced) and in good condition. Damage is a rarity, the colours are strong and Mike Coulter’s excellent photography is served extremely well. The original mono soundtrack is in just as good a shape, coping ably with the dialogue and B.A. Robertson’s score (which, admittedly, is a little on the dated side, especially its heavy use of saxophone). As with the lack of extras there is also a lack of optional subtitles, English or otherwise.