Prince of Muck, review: one man, a Hebridean island and a film of elegiac brilliance

·3-min read
Lawrence MacEwen walks on the beach - Faction North
Lawrence MacEwen walks on the beach - Faction North

The rhythms of Prince of Muck (BBC Four), a documentary about the laird of the remote Scottish isle of the same name, will lull you into drowsy numbness. It is awash with wide-angled grandeur, vistas and views that could be a tourist board video with an Outlander soundtrack. But don’t be fooled. This is a tale of fierce spirit, dogged intransigence, a tale of one man, Lawrence MacEwen, who refuses to be moved.

The stillness, from static camera shots that sometimes run for so long it feels like the picture has frozen, is supposed to suggest a gentler pace of life. Lawrence appears initially as doddery and old, put-putting around the family farm on his old Massey Ferguson, muttering to his cows from beneath his hedgerow-thick beard in his Victor Meldrew voice. Many of the family have left for the mainland, ostensibly because not much happens on Muck.

But of course that’s the point. Skilful editing, snippets of family arguments and some stolen moments reveal that there is a family drama playing out on Muck as stirring as anything on television. Lawrence is getting old but can’t bring himself fully to relinquish the farm to his son Colin. There’s a Lear-esque power struggle rumbling away beneath the idyll, and friction between Lawrence and his wife, and it is all fuelled by the unbreakable will you start to see behind Lawrence’s rheumy eyes, built on a life spent working the land and the seas. In his mind, Muck is his island. “When you’ve stayed 50 years in a place you ought to know something,” he says.

When he was a boy Lawrence used to learn poetry. “Watching the tide was another occupation,” he says. His older brother left the island. His father died. Lawrence endured like the rocks on the hillside. And so Prince of Muck is really a tale of the passing of time, ageing, moving on and staying put. Do you try to change with the times or do you remain true to your roots and the land? Will the future be better or worse than the past? What price memories?

Towards the end of the film we watch Lawrence fall asleep. It takes ages, but then Prince of Muck is a film determined to take its time and say its piece, much like Lawrence. It’s not until an hour in that we learn that Lawrence’s beloved brother killed himself. On that day, the diaries recall, Lawrence went to let the sheep out and mend the fence.

Such nuggets of backstory are delivered so rarely, and so quietly, that you could almost fail to notice, but they are incendiary. Prince of Muck is a very slow, very moving character study that documents the inevitable erosion of the old ways in a fast-moving, ever changing world. The photography is magnificent, it has funny moments but mostly it is elegiac. Because as steadfast as he appears, the film-makers know that Lawrence won’t go on for ever, and at the end there’s a postscript to say that he died on Monday (16 May). This film thus becomes both his epitaph and his legacy, and it’s all the more moving for it.

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