From homegrown filmmakers who’ve gone on to international acclaim to features that make evocative use of its towns, cities, communities and landscapes, Scotland’s cinematic output has always been particularly rich. Excluding movies that you can currently only watch digitally by renting or buying them (sorry to The Wicker Man, Whisky Galore! and most of Bill Forsyth’s efforts), here are some of the best Scottish films you can stream right now.
Acquired as a Netflix exclusive ahead of a festival premiere, Calibre (2018) is an incredibly tense and nuanced thriller from writer-director Matt Palmer, reportedly influenced by Australian classic Wake in Fright (1971). Starring Jack Lowden, Martin McCann and Tony Curran, the plot sees 2 life-long friends battling for survival in an isolated town in the Scottish Highlands, after a hunting trip gone wrong leads to escalating lies. Calibre has famous fans in Stephen King and Bong Joon-ho, the latter of whom is producing the upcoming Palmer-directed Sea Fog.
For a lighter watch, though no less nuanced when it comes to its dramatic elements, Netflix is the place to stream Tom Harper’s Wild Rose (2018), penned by BAFTA-winning Scottish screenwriter Nicole Taylor. The charismatic Jessie Buckley – with one of the better attempts at a Glasgow accent by a non-Scot – plays Rose-Lynn, a young single mother-of-two fresh from a one-year prison sentence, trying to rectify her disorderly life while still pining for her country singer dreams and a trip to Nashville.
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Even when only counting movies included with a subscription, Amazon Prime has the highest quantity of Scottish features among streaming services in Britain, encompassing documentaries alongside fiction films.
Starring Ewan McGregor and Eva Green, David Mackenzie’s lyrical sci-fi drama Perfect Sense (2011) got a divisive reception on release, but this sobering romance has aged well, only becoming more resonant given the current state of affairs in the world. Set in Glasgow, it follows a chef and scientist falling in love as a pandemic – and possible extinction-level event for mankind – gradually robs the world’s human population of each of its senses, one sense at a time, starting with smell and then taste.
Prime has 2 of the best Scotland-set collaborations between director Ken Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty. Cannes prize-winner Sweet Sixteen (2002) – currently a budget rental title at 99p – introduced the world to Martin Compston, playing a delinquent Greenock teenager earning money to purchase his incarcerated mother a new home when she gets out of prison.
The pair’s first team-up, Carla’s Song (1996), is a sensitively-handled drama set in 1987. It sees Glaswegian bus driver George (Robert Carlyle) form a relationship with Carla (Oyanka Cabezas), a Nicaraguan musician with PTSD stemming from the conflict in her home country. The film’s second half leaves Glasgow for Nicaragua, where the pair are caught up in the war between the Sandinistas and the US-backed Contras.
When you remove rentals from the equation, streaming options for Scottish films tend to favour works made in the last 25 years. Luckily, BFI Player’s subscription offerings make up for that a bit.
Featuring a cast who largely came from the Glasgow Youth Theatre, Bill Forsyth’s authentic debut, That Sinking Feeling (1979), is a delightful crime caper that follows a group of unemployed teenagers trying to steal stainless steel sinks from a warehouse. Four of the key actors would return for Forsyth’s international breakthrough Gregory’s Girl (1980).
Austere but bewitching, Bill Douglas’s autobiographical triptych of films about his impoverished childhood, known as The Bill Douglas Trilogy, are among the finest films about youth made anywhere in the world. All 3 of the short black-and-white features – My Childhood (1972), My Ain Folk (1973) and My Way Home (1978) – can be found on BFI Player.
A highlight among the more recent options is Shell (2012), the Highlands-set debut feature from Scott Graham, who’s gone on to specialise in tales of isolation in Scottish locations relatively underserved in cinema, in such films as Iona (2015) and Run (2019). Shell documents the strange relationship between the 17-year-old title character (Chloe Pirrie) and her distant, epileptic father (Joseph Mawle), who operate a petrol station and garage miles from much meaningful human contact.
Andrea Arnold’s tough and textured first feature, Red Road (2006) – a surveillance-based psychosexual thriller, starring character actor favourite Kate Dickie in a rare lead role – has always been one to recommend, but it’s now also a curious time capsule concerning Glasgow. The Red Road high-rise flats were formally condemned 2 years after the film’s release, with their phased demolition completed in 2015.
MUBI has Lynne Ramsay’s breakthrough Ratcatcher (1999), one of the most impressive debut features of the last 25 years. Set in Glasgow against the backdrop of the bin workers’ strike of 1973, Ratcatcher tells a particularly haunting coming-of-age story, as 12-year-old James (William Eadie) is a silent witness to the drowning of his friend in a nearby canal during a play fight. Meanwhile, James’s family waits for word on a move to new council housing as part of a redevelopment initiative. Filled with moments of hopeful wonder amid painful depictions of poverty and mistreatment, Ramsay’s film exemplifies the unique brand of elegiac social realism for which she’s become known.
For the next 6 months, BBC iPlayer hosts Ramsay’s excellent second feature, Morvern Callar (2002), based on Scottish author Alan Warner’s novel of the same name. Initially set in the port and resort town Oban, it follows the title character (Samantha Morton), a supermarket employee, as she discovers her boyfriend dead in their home at Christmas, having left behind a suicide note and a manuscript of his unpublished novel. Erasing his name and putting forth her own, she gains interest from a publisher, leading to a hedonistic holiday with her best friend, Lanna (Kathleen McDermott).
Britbox is the exclusive streaming home of Danny Boyle’s Edinburgh-set debut Shallow Grave (1994), the deliciously dark tale of 3 obnoxious yuppies succumbing to greed and bloodlust when their mysterious new flatmate abruptly dies, leaving behind a large suitcase of money. Edinburgh, Ewan McGregor and a moral dilemma with money would return for Boyle’s direct follow-up, Trainspotting (1996), also on Britbox. You may have heard of it.
Possibly the best of Ken Loach and Paul Laverty’s collaborations, the Glasgow-set drama My Name Is Joe (1998) – for which Peter Mullan received a best actor prize at Cannes – is another Britbox highlight. Also (largely) set in Glasgow is Jonathan Glazer’s mesmerising, though loose adaptation, of Michel Faber’s Under the Skin (2013), in which Scarlett Johansson’s extra-terrestrial roams the city in search of men she can lure to an unspeakable fate. It’s one of the finest horror films of the 21st century.
For pure sweeping escapism, Britbox has Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s charming and gorgeously shot romance I Know Where I’m Going! (1945). Wendy Hiller plays middle-class Englishwoman Joan, journeying to the Hebrides to marry a rich older man, but ending up stranded on the wrong island due to a storm. There she falls for the community of Mull and naval officer Torquil (Roger Livesey).
It should be noted that a number of notable Scottish films make a fairly regular appearance in Film4’s programming, subsequently showing up on All4 – Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero (1983) and Danny Boyle’s thoughtful sequel T2 Trainspotting (2017) to name just two. All4’s brief streaming windows are why nothing specific has been recommended here, but it’s worth keeping an eye on their selection. Similarly, BBC Scotland’s film programming means gems like Peter Mullan’s dark comedy Orphans (1998), among others, pop up on iPlayer now and then.