Most of the characters in The Etruscan Smile are stuck in their ways, though Emily (Thora Birch) – who could easily be the most caricatured of all, with her diarised mothering, “autonomous baby”, and cry-it-out sleep training – is actually the one most prepared to accept she might have made a mistake.
Her husband Ian (JJ Feild) and newly-arrived Scottish father-in-law Rory (Brian Cox) may be the focus, but despite their gradually thawing relationship they both also maintain aspects of their pigheadedness right to the end.
Rory is as tough as the old boots he doesn’t wear on his morning trot down to the icy Scottish bay. In fact he doesn’t wear anything, preferring to make his bracing daily swim a naked one. After that he spends his day wrapped in woollens, maintaining his croft, before heading to the local pub for a few beers.
The only spanner in the works is his worsening back pain, and eventually even the local vet, who’s been medicating him with horse painkillers, insists he see a doctor.
Etruscan Smile (it’s based on José Luis Sampedro’s novel La Sonriser Etrusca, though nationalities and locations are changed) is a moving, charming and self-contained film. Yes it follows a familiar trajectory, and highlights well-worn themes (you’re sure to guess the penultimate scene). But Cox is wonderful, and takes the independent, frightened and deflectingly rude Rory as far as a man like that would realistically go (answer: quite far) without resorting to caricature.
Rory claims that McNeils have lived on the Scottish Hebridean Isle Of Lewis for millennia, but not everyone likes them – the family has been feuding with the Campbell clan for several hundred of those years.
Even as Rory bonds with his baby grandson in America, this new reason to stay alive is merely adding to an existing determination to outlive his current Campbell nemesis, who rather gratifyingly then goes down with liver failure. (I liked that there was absolutely no effort to sentimentalise Rory’s relationship with Campbell, no deathbed reconciliation of their families.)
The septuagenarian hasn’t told Ian and Emily that he’s coming over to San Francisco as much to see a doctor as to visit them and baby Jamie. (Despite our NHS, I can just about believe a man like Rory, used to staying on his island and with a lifetime’s GP avoidance, might actually think this a better idea. What’s never made clear is how he then pays for his expensive US treatment, unless Emily’s rich dad is picking up the bill.)
Once in high-tech San Francisco, directors Oded Binnun and Mihal Brezis thankfully resist the usual cliches where we’re expected to believe someone from a small place in Britain has never seen a lightbulb before.
There is, though, long-held emotional tension between Ian (who left the island for a university scholarship) and Rory (for whom nowhere can live up to his home); tension that is exacerbated by both Emily’s modern parenting methods, and Ian’s career in molecular gastronomy. (I’d have probably responded to Ian’s cubes of red jelly with something unidentifiable on top in much the same way as Rory. I am Northern though.)
The relationship between Rory and his grandson would have been a very slow burn if he hadn’t been told not to pick up the baby. Soon they’re off on their first illicit adventure together, with Rory encouraging Jamie to develop his autonomy – though perhaps not in the way Emily intended.
Rory’s health issues, once diagnosed, won’t come as a surprise to anyone used to family dramas about reconnecting before it’s too late.
But though the story follows an expected path, the calibre of the cast, and some witty extras, make this more than just an advert for holidays in Scotland. (Though you’ll probably still want to take a holiday in Scotland – who could fail to be awed by the lonely stone house, looking out over a freezingly beautiful Hebridean bay? And credit to cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe, who highlights the natural and artificial starry beauty of both Scotland and San Francisco.)
Despite hospital visits and bonding with baby Jamie, Rory also fits in a gradually blossoming romance with Rosanna Arquette’s museum executive Claudia, and takes part in a university project to preserve dying languages. As he sits in a recording booth relating some rather earthy stories from his own life in Gaelic, he’s finally being honoured, and listened to.
There’s a lot of humour; explaining his feud with Campbell in Gaelic, he delivers a terrific burn to his far-away Scottish enemy: “even his own liver rejected him”, an insult that is recorded and, unbeknown to Campbell, preserved for posterity.
I really liked that Rory retains some wholly unnecessary curmudgeonliness almost to the very end. Ian too is frankly a bit of a dick at times. Even newly-happy families on a deadline will still get scratchy with each other, and with other people.
JJ Feild (who looks as if he’s been created from the stolen DNA of Tom Hiddleston and Jude Law) is good as Ian, a man who has deliberately escaped his parochial origins for a broader canvas where he can be himself, but finds himself crushed between two traditional examples of masculinity: his physically tough dad bathing in the frozen sea and giving family-heirloom pocket knives to small children, and his businessman father-in-law.
Both want him to be like them and he’s increasingly emasculated. Though part of him clearly misses his old home; baby Jamie’s bedroom is a constellation of artificial stars mimicking the sky above Lewis.
But the hardest role to play must surely be Emily. Mothers are easy to mock and to blame; for everyone bitching about Emily’s sleep training methods there would be another prepared to tell me I was creating a rod for my own back, picking my baby up when he cried.
It can’t be easy taking on a role like that and avoiding stereotypes, especially as the tension between Emily’s beliefs about family and Rory’s partly drive the story. At times the script feels a little misogynistic in its portrayal of her but Birch is convincing and nuanced. (Emily also works harder than anyone else: mothering, her high octane business life, tying to bridge the gap between husband and father-in-law, pacifying her father.)
I should mention baby Jamie here, with his shock of red hair, a gift from both his auburn-tressed mother and Celtic father. He (or rather they, as he’s played by twins) is an adorable bundle of lovable and loving squidginess, and rarely have I seen anyone rock a Scottish chunky-knit cardigan with such aplomb.
Watch the trailer for The Etruscan Smile: