The Rocket Post is a film which harks back to earlier, more innocent, days of Whisky Galore!, The Maggie, I Know Where I’m Going and The Edge of the World. All of these films are well loved and continue to find new audiences. So why did The Rocket Post, released in 2004, pass by almost unnoticed? When you take into consideration a cast which includes Patrick Malahide, Shauna MacDonald, Kevin McKidd, Ulrich Thompson, Clive Russell, John Wood and Eddie Marsen, a man who is making a claim to be one of the best actors at work today, it becomes even more of a mystery.
Admittedly the story is slight, but then so are many of those classics mentioned above. Set on the Isle of Scarp just before the outbreak of The Second World War, although filmed on Taransay, it is set in a time and place which has rarely been dealt with in recent years as Scotland’s darker side has dominated cinema screens. Perhaps audiences were put off by this relative unfamiliarity and the unfashionable tone, but there are enough quirky and unusual aspects to The Rocket Post to make it of interest.
As far as the cast is concerned, they too are a mixed bag. Gary Shaw is the best thing on show, revelling in this role as Jimmy (but of course) the gallus Glaswegian welder turned poacher who gives his lines a gusto which they barely deserve. Another strong turn comes from Eddie Marsan. If you know Marsan from Mike Leigh’s Happy Go Lucky, or from this year’s Tyrannosaur(the most visceral experience of my cinema going year) then it is easy to forget his range. Here he plays Heinz Dombrowsky, our hero Gerhard Zucker’s assistant, who feels his loyalties to his employee and those to his home country shift as it becomes clear that war is inevitable. Shauna Macdonald, who was equally good in a far more demanding role in Irvine Welsh’s Wedding Belles, is perfect as the feisty and headstrong Catriona, but there is little doubt that the rest of the cast are poorly served, particularly Kevin McKidd who is Catriona’s childhood sweetheart and whose stoic acceptance of her change of heart never convinces.
The problem is that everyone is a stereotype which we have seen done better before. Shaw, Macdonald and Marsen manage to make their characters more than one-dimensional, but everyone else struggles. Malahide’s Machiavellian government spook is underused and John Wood’s Sir Wilson Ramsay pales alongside Basil Radford’s Captain Wagett from Whisky Galore! on whom he is obviously based. The leading man Ulrich Thompson sums up the films central problem. Like the film, he doesn’t know what he is supposed to be. He is not sure if he is in a war movie or a love story. The film is similarly schizophrenic. It starts out as a political thriller, then swiftly moves towards the slightly awkward love story, before a breathless, and moving, finale that is more The Great Escape than Whisky Galore! Considering what has gone before, the hard hitting ending is a surprise. This directorial confusion makes a little more sense when you discover that the film started shooting in 2001, yet wasn’t finished and released until 2004 with some scenes added on at a later date. Overall there is the feeling of a missed opportunity, but it’s no where near the worse film featured on these pages (step forward The Match and Burke and Hare). If this was on TV on a lazy afternoon with the rain battering the window then it would life my spirits, and sometimes that’s enough. Here’s the trailer:
Perhaps the most striking aspect of The Rocket Post is that it is based closely on the true story of the real Gerhard Zucker, a German rockateer who was billeted on Scarpa to build a rocket post, and was still building rockets in the 1970s. The story of the Island of Taransay is also worth reflecting on. The last inhabitants left the island in 1974 and it is now the largest uninhabited island off the West Coast of Scotland. These real life dramas should have made for a more engaging film. Maybe, one day, they will.