Gregory's Girl Review

Gregory (Gordon John Sinclair) is at school in Scotland, tall and awkward. He's part of the football team which is suffering because it isn't very good. The coach sets up trials and Dorothy (Dee Hepburn) arrives...and is a better player than anyone else. And Gregory is smitten...

Bill Forsyth's first feature, That Sinking Feeling shot in Glasgow using members of the local Youth Theatre, was at the time in the Guinness Book of Records as the lowest-budget film ever to receive a commercial cinema release. (That Sinking Feeling is due out on a dual-format release from the BFI.) Gregory's Girl was a step up in scale, though still very modest: shot in 35mm instead of 16mm (by the same DP, Michael Coulter), on location in the Scottish New Town of Cumbernauld, and using many of the same cast. It was produced by Davina Belling and Clive Parsons, who had previously made Scum and Breaking Glass. It was a commercial success and, in those days before widespread home video, it had a second bite of the cherry in being reissued in cinemas on a double bill with Chariots of Fire, which is when I saw it.

Three and a half decades later, despite its Best Picture Oscar and its screenwriter's boast that “The British are coming!”, Chariots of Fire seems to be more or less fading into the past. On the other hand, Gregory's Girl, remains fresh and funny – for me, on a fourth viewing for this DVD and my first for over twenty-five years. If it has dated, it's only in superficial ways, the usual pre-mid-90s indicators of no mobile phones – one plot point is enabled by means of a public payphone - and no Internet, and it's true it might be made differently today. But it remains a low-key character comedy that is still relevant, while tall, gangling awkward boys still make clumsy attempts to meet girls and while there are still adolescent growing pains. Forsyth drew inspiration from Ealing, and the films of Jacques Tati, which he'd seen in school, and while his career has faltered (more about that later) scenes and dialogue from his second feature have passed into the culture. Even such standard romantic-comedy tropes as Gregory's younger sister Madeline (Allison Forster, her only screen role) being more worldly-wise than her brother and advising him, don't seem rote. (In the commentary, Forsyth says he lifted this from The Catcher in the Rye.) As always, it's in the writing (by Forsyth): even minor characters such as the teachers get well-scripted scenes that make them come to life, even in the short time they're on screen. Also, he feels out the story with quirky details such as the unexplained man in the penguin suit (played by Christopher Higson, now a carpenter working for Peter Jackson).

Gregory's Girl is based on a premise that was quite progressive – a teenage girl playing football in a boys' team – and, given debates about the visibility of women's sports, it still is. You can imagine – or dread – a Hollywood version of this overtly sexualising Dorothy, Susan and the other girls. But that's not the case here: Gregory's attraction to Dorothy is due to her footballing prowess. And, throughout the film, the girls are far more aware and mature than the boys, and it's the girls who resolve the film in its final act, with Gregory not having a clue what's going on. Dee Hepburn plays Dorothy with a sense of amused detachment that might seem supercilious in a less sympathetic character: you know she knows exactly what's going on. (That said, if you are keeping score, Gregory's Girl doesn't pass the Bechdel Test: Dorothy and Susan's one conversation, in the chemistry lab, is about Gregory.)
John Gordon Sinclair (who is billed here as Gordon John Sinclair) had a small role in That Sinking Feeling, fitting in the filming around his Scottish Highers exams. Clare Grogan was just becoming a pop star (lead singer with Altered Images) around the time of Gregory's Girl She is filmed almost entirely from her right side, to hide scars received from broken glass while fleeing a Glaswegian pub brawl. Both worked with Forsyth again, and both continue to act to this day. Dee Hepburn, on the other hand, hasn't continued an acting career: her only later credits were episodes of the TV soap Crossroads and a part in a 1996 film, The Bruce. She received coaching from Partick Thistle for her character's footballing skills. Robert Buchanan, the lead in That Sinking Feeling, is effective as Gregory's best friend.

Gregory's Girl had a US release (with a redubbed soundtrack, see below). Oscar paid no attention, but BAFTA nominated it for Best Film and Best Director, Forsyth winning for his screenplay.

In the same year as Gregory's Girl, Forsyth made a film for the BBC, Andrina, based on a story by Orcadian writer George Mackay Brown: I saw it on its only showing, and it could certainly bear a DVD release. Many think Forsyth's next feature, Local Hero, to be his high point. Drawing further on Ealing, especially their Scottish films like Whisky Galore!. Certainly it's a step up in visual flair, though Chris Menges's cinematography has a lot to do with that. That was followed by the somewhat undervalued Comfort and Joy and the definitely undervalued and underseen Canadian-shot US production Housekeeping, from Marilynne Robinson's novel. After that, Forsyth had conflicts with the studios over Breaking In and Being Human, both of which flopped, and he has not made a film since his sequel to Gregory's Girl, Gregory's Two Girls, in 1999.

The Disc

Second Sight have released Gregory's Girl on both DVD and Blu-ray. It was the former which was supplied for review, and comments below and affiliate links above refer to that edition. For affiliate links for the Blu-ray, go here. The DVD is dual-layered in PAL format and encoded for all regions.

After a “restored by Pinewood” caption, the transfer begins with the original green A certificate (the equivalent of today's PG) as issued by what was then called the British Board of Film Censors, an instant nostalgic trigger for those of a certain age. Nowadays, due to some moderate language (a “wanker” and two “pricks”) and an opening scene where several boys spy on a student nurse getting undressed in her room, Gregory's Girl now sits within the bounds of a 12 certificate.

Gregory's Girl was shot in 35mm and the DVD is in the intended ratio of 1.85:1, anamorphically enhanced. This was never the visually most slick of films, due mainly to the small budget, and much of it has a natural-light look, which as this is Scotland is not especially bright. However, the transfer does look the way the film has always looked. Grain is present, but is natural and filmlike.

The soundtrack is the original mono, which is clear and well-balanced. English subtitles are available for the hard of hearing. However, there is a second original soundtrack available: a redub (the “Edinburgh Version”, Forsyth calls it) for the film's US release. This tones down some of the stronger Scottish accents, and has a noticeable difference in ambience.

The extras begin with a commentary by Forsyth, talking to Mark Kermode, who is clearly a big fan of the film and of Forsyth's work. However, Kermode steers the conversation clear of too much of a love-in and the result is an interesting if not over-detailed chat concerning a film Forsyth is proud of, though he acknowledges its flaws – an unduly slow pace, for one.

Inevitably much of this overlaps with a to-camera interview with Forsyth, “Bill Forsyth: The Early Years” (20:06). As he reveals, he had little interest in film early on, but developed one when he got a job with a film company after school, and started watching films in earnest, mostly arthouse rather than commercial material. He then moved into making documentaries, and actually wrote the first draft of Gregory's Girl before making That Sinking Feeling. Making two films with young people was a calculated move: both to keep the budget down and also to gain experience in working with actors as they were similarly at the beginnings of their career. That Sinking Feeling was made first, when financing for Gregory's Girl fell through. (The BFI turned down Gregory's Girl on the grounds that it was too commercial, and you can see why it would have been an odd fit for the films the BFI was making at the time.) Following That Sinking Feeling, Forsyth was approached by Belling and Parsons, and the film was made for about ten times the budget he had failed to find previously.

The second interview is with Clare Grogan, “Gregory's Girl Memories” (11:04). She met Forsyth when she was working as a waitress in a restaurant called the Spaghetti Factory, where he was a regular customer. He offered her the role in Gregory's Girl then, and she went on the play the role just after leaving school. Her “dance” sequence with Sinclair was Forsyth's idea, but improvised by the two of them on location.

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