Seachd - The Inaccessible Pinnacle Review
It’s perhaps inevitable that the first modern feature film in Scots Gaelic is going to promote the values of tradition – the learning to be gained not only from ancient folklore, but through respect for the wisdom and experience passed down through family generations, kept alive through the practice of oral storytelling in the original language. It’s also just as inevitable that any Scottish film dealing with tradition will undoubtedly draw on the magnificent scenery of its unspoiled locations as a means of showing the beauty and necessity of preserving that heritage. With limited funding available for minority language programming, director Simon Miller clearly knows how to overcome the necessary limitations in making Seachd – The Inaccessible Pinnacle by taking full advantage of the natural storytelling traditions and the striking locations that no scriptwriting or special effects team could possibly match.
It’s to the natural beauty of the Isle of Skye that Aonghas (Coll Domhnallach) returns to visit his ailing grandfather in hospital. The return to the place where he grew up inspires memories and mixed feelings in the young man. It was in the island’s Cuillin mountain range that Aonghas’s mother and father were killed in a mountaineering accident, while attempting to ascend the Inaccessible Pinnacle. The young Aonghas (Padruig Moireasdan), along with his brother and sister, is taken in by his grandparents, but the young boy isn’t moved by the ancient stories going back a thousand years told to the children by their grandfather (Aonghas Padruig Caimbeul). The stories are all about life and death however, about the struggles of his ancestors to retain their ways, their name, their language, their freedom and traditions from the threats across the ages – whether it be to free themselves from the bonds of English landlords, the Spanish Armada or from death itself. Aonghas refuses to recognise himself as part of this long chain of misfortune, cruelty and hardship - one belonging to a line of tradition that has taken away his own parents. He rejects the stories of the past as nothing more than comforting lies when he wants to know the truth of his parents’ death.
Seachd – The Inaccessible Pinnacle is meticulously structured to support this conflict of modernity versus tradition, the story of Aonghas’s childhood, and the delving back further into tradition through the folk tales and legends, all framed by the modern-day reflection of the older boy with a new sense of maturity to accept and be reconciled with the past. The dramatised folk tales also allow for excellent variation in pace and tone, enriching the film with elements of drama, romance, humour and historical significance, all of which are thematically coherent and integrate meaningfully into the main story. Unfortunately it’s elements of the main story itself that are slightly lacking in the film, the young man being reconciled with his dying grandfather being a somewhat contrived and predictable family drama situation, while the circumstances around the death of Aonghas’s parents is also unimaginative, underdeveloped and largely unresolved, failing to provide a realistic context for the young man’s childhood rebellion. Undoubtedly, the necessity of casting from a relatively small pool of Gaelic-speaking actors presents further limitations, and while the performances often tend on the side of amateur dramatics, the acting is reasonably good, particularly in the folklore segments.
What is more difficult to come to terms with in the film however is the inescapable air of Celtic folk mysticism that abounds in its almost tourist brochure view of Scotland, its traditions, heritage and culture. Undoubtedly, the principal attraction of the film, as well as much of its purpose, is going to rely on the magnificence of the scenery - which is indeed impressive and beautifully photographed – as well as the warm-hearted sentiments expressed by the film’s themes on family and tradition. Such wrapping up of historical conflict and personal lessons in cosy fireside folk tales taking place in misty, mystical mountain ranges and dramatic coastlines, enveloped in the pervasive flow of gentle Celtic airs and reels may perhaps lead some viewers to side with the young Aonghas in believing that a little more down-to-earth realism might go somewhat further in addressing the needs of small community life than the striving for an inaccessible pinnacle.
Seachd – The Inaccessible Pinnacle is released in the UK by Soda Pictures. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc, in PAL format, and is Region 2 encoded.
Once again, as is frequently the case with Soda’s releases, the transfer for Seachd – The Inaccessible Pinnacle is beyond criticism. The film itself seems to have been shot on Digital Video and has made the transition to DVD without a single flaw. The image is perfectly stable, the cool colour tones and stylised colour schemes of the folk tales are well represented, with tones and black levels as good as they get in this medium. The transfer is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, is anamorphically enhanced and progressively encoded.
The film comes with a choice of Dolby Digital 2.0 and Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes in the original Gaelic soundtrack. The dynamic surround mix is most impressive, subtly employed for the larger part of the film, but coming fully to life where required with strong, defined subwoofer action, such as in the thundering horse race of Sileas.
Optional English subtitles are provided for all the Gaelic dialogue in the film, but there is no hard-of-hearing option for the few instances of English dialogue spoken. Irish Gaelic, Scots Gaelic and Welsh subtitle options are also provided, but again for the Gaelic language segments of the film only. The subtitles are all in a clear white font, well placed and clearly readable.
Simon Miller provides a commentary for the film, accompanied by Aonghas Padruig Caimbeul. From the half-hour sample I made of it, it's fairly pleasant and easy going, each one providing complementary thoughts on the making of the film, the language, history and culture, covering information on the locations, the shooting that was done and sometimes the significance of certain scenes.
Cast and Crew interviews in Gaelic and English
There are extensive interviews with cast and crew, 52 minutes worth in English and around 16 minutes of interviews in Gaelic. None of the Gaelic interviews are subtitled. The younger actors talk about the experience of filmmaking, the older actors about the Gaelic language and its importance in the film. The most interesting interview here however is the 11 minute conversation with director Simon Miller and producer Chris Young, who discuss their intentions for the project and how they were able to bring it together.
Edinburgh Film Festival Footage (4:47)
The cast and crew are gathered for a Ceilidh in Edinburgh, and among the brief interview snippets, the composer talks at a bit more length about the traditional reconstructed instruments used for the soundtrack.
Deleted Scenes (6:59)
A few deleted scenes include an excised subplot that features the older siblings of Aonghas at the hospital and in the final scenes with the grandfather. These are in Gaelic with no subtitles.
‘Foighidinn: The Crimson Snowdrop’ (14:49)
Simon Miller’s earlier 2004 short film is a longer version of one of the stories told in the feature. Aonghas Padruig Caimbeul again appears as the storytelling grandfather, but the children are different. The story of the Crimson Snowdrop is the same footage reused in The Inaccessible Pinnacle but with different colour grading.
The strengths of Simon Miller’s debut feature, the first in Scots Gaelic, are clearly evident. Seachd – The Inaccessible Pinnacle has a strong and meaningful theme, one that is relevant to the choice of language in which it is made, and the structure, cinematography and music all work to support the central idea of tradition as a bond between families and the past. The storyteller narrative, along with its mystic folk elements and tourist brochure aesthetic may however be a little too complacent and conventional to have any meaningful application in real-world terms, but as far as storytelling goes, Seachd – The Inaccessible Pinnacle weaves a spell of its own. In the absence of a High-Definition release, the UK DVD release from Soda Pictures couldn’t conceivably be any better, with a flawless transfer and a complete set of relevant extra features.