Schemers – Review

Directed by Dave Mclean

Written by Dave Mclean, Khaled Spiewak & Kyle Titterton

UK/91mins/2020

Rating: 4 out of 5.

You know, Dundee has much more to it than 24hr bakeries and penguin statues. It even has more to it than a brand-spanking-new, though overpriced and under-filled Museum. Dundee – for all of the grim visage and notoriety has bountiful scientific education, diverse history and an earthy footing in the Scottish arts, poetry, and music scene. From Duncan & Jordanstone to William H. McGonagall to the basement clubs and ticket venues, any who have taken an elitist eye to the city need only watch Schemers and re-evaluate their approach to the city.

Dave Mclean, writer and director of the semi-biography, may now reside in sunnier pastures, but there’s an unequivocal sense of pride for Scotland, specifically for the home of Jam, Jute and Journalism. Dundee was at the heart of Scotland’s heavily industrialized movement, and with the decline of this came job losses and financial difficulties. Now a city of music and science, there’s nary a corner or street which doesn’t hold a slice of the cities’ murkier, greyer history.

What Schemers has going for it is the narrative, a loose variation of Mclean’s time growing up in the city before his eventual stratospheric influence on the music industry. More than this, Mclean, Khaled Spiewak & Kyle Titterton know where to spice the flavour text, which aspects of the tale require a cinematic stretch and which parts to keep to a minimum. It all starts the way most things do, with a lad looking to get laid. Taken by the student nurse who treats him in his stay at Ninewells Hospital, Davie seeks to impress Shona with his supposed importance in the music scene. Gradually the gigs get bigger and more intense, and the debts and favours owed pile.

Here’s the rub – it’s difficult to produce any cinematic venture in Scotland without having to tip-toe around the big one, Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting. And though Edinburgh and Dundee couldn’t be more different than a bridie and a pasty – there are undoubtedly transparencies in both framing and scene-makeups. In part inspiration, in elements ‘borrowing’, scenes of Davie fleeing the men he crosses, the musical score and the undertones, a lot is too familiar. Schemers play with class politics, drug problems and life prospects cause the writing to frequently lean into expected directions but not too heavily detrimental levels.

Thankfully, the humour is capitalised on, chiefly in the physical and timing from Grant Robert Keelan as John. The exhaustion on this poor man’s face, tirelessly helping out his pals despite the dire straits they bungle into is effortlessly sold. Conor Berry’s Davie finds a meticulous line of wideo and charisma, which is set off by Sara Lee’s portrayal of Shona, at first a love-interest who quickly emerges as the film’s peak of drama, energy, and range.

Obstacles arise in the remaining characterisations, a portion of the cast struggles to forge a connection with the audience. Ranging from unlikable to drab, the principal cast keep face and engagement to a relatively high but much of the ensemble leave scenes with nowhere to go and fall flat.

A significant limitation Schemers causes itself is how it loses the grit of Dundee. As aspirational it is that Mclean gives the city a fresh lick of paint, the introduction of Fergie and his boys, the club-owners who control the industry, the threat they pose feels hollow – this is far from a band of villains. Even for those unfamiliar with the outcome of events, there’s never a sense of genuine danger for our protagonists – Schemers comes off as too safe, too clean, and is the film’s biggest let-down.

But credit where credit is due, Alan C. McLaughlin’s cinematography frames the city in a manner many overlook. For those of us who have spent an evening in the toon’ stumbling out of Fatties or Clarks, Dundee is in itself a staggeringly overlooked city of remarkable architecture and layout. Much of the colour palette compliments the already dusty city, the nostalgic tones enhancing the Caird Hall’s sanded stone or its close-knit housing scheme as the visual aesthetic works to suggest the past and romanticise Dundee to an extent.

Schemers is available to pre-order – digital copy here and DVD here

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