When three George MacKay films hit UK cinemas on the same day

George McKay in Sunshine on Leith
Share this Article:

Roll over Barbenheimer – it’s been 10 years since George MacKay Day. We look back at Sunshine On Leith, How I Live Now, and For Those In Peril…

NB: This feature contains spoilers for Sunshine On Leith and How I Live Now.

On Friday 4th October 2013, George MacKay was in three of the new films released in UK cinemas. It’s always nice to see a young rising star do well, but we can’t think of another fluke like this with any other actor, even a decade later.

After making his film debut as a Lost Boy in 2003’s Peter Pan and appearing as Daniel Craig’s youngest brother in 2008’s Defiance, MacKay received good notices for his roles in film and TV, but the triple-whammy of Sunshine On Leith, How I Live Now, and For Those In Peril (two of them leading roles) represented quite a step up.

It’s the sort of scheduling accident that wouldn’t happen if MacKay had a higher profile at the time – no one in their right mind would put three Tom Hanks films in cinemas the same day, because they’d compete with each other. And we know they weren’t all filmed at the same time because, well, they’ve all got George MacKay in them – they were shot back-to-back-to-back instead.

It isn’t a typical film programming decision, and so, this isn’t a typical anniversary retrospective. We like these three films, but what does MacKay bring to each of them? And what on Earth did the weekend box-office look like?

Sunshine On Leith

‘I’m on my way from misery to happiness today…’

Featuring the songs of Scottish folk-rock duo The Proclaimers, Sunshine On Leith is Dexter Fletcher’s post-Mamma Mia! screen adaptation of writer Stephen Greenhorn’s Dundee Rep musical of the same name. MacKay plays Davy Henshaw, a squaddie who returns home to Edinburgh with his friend Ally after they’re both discharged from the British Army in Afghanistan.

Getting home in time for his parents (Peter Mullan and Jane Horrocks) to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary, he struggles with civilian life until he’s caught up in a whirlwind romance with nurse Yvonne (Antonia Thomas). Oh, and by the end, a lot of people are ‘da-da da da da’-ing through I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles).

While Charlie and Craig Reid’s songbook is not the most natural fit for movie musical storytelling, Fletcher plays to its strengths. Compared to his star-spangled Elton John movie Rocketman later in the 2010s, this is a more knockabout, pub singalong affair that makes room for everything from MacKay sweetly serenading his girlfriend, to Mullan making Tom Waits sound like Justin Bieber.

The way numbers like Oh Jean, Let’s Get Married, and Letter From America are inserted into the story had some critics rolling their eyes, but this is a persuasively feel-good effort that MacKay leads admirably. Fletcher initially cast MacKay as Davy’s best mate and fellow squaddie Ally but decided that he and co-star Kevin Guthrie should switch roles – and it works out for the best.

It’s rollicking good fun when an entire pub comes down with singing Over And Done With, and tear-jerking when the mighty Jane Horrocks belts out the title song. Oh, and it’s an altogether nicer Edinburgh-set film than the other major wide release of the week, Jon S. Baird’s Filth, a jet-black Irvine Welsh adaptation which features neither George MacKay, nor any nice Visit Scotland-pleasing musical numbers on the Mound.


How I Live Now

‘Wherever they take you, find a way to get back here. Promise me.’

The next biggest release of MacKay’s big week was Kevin Macdonald’s How I Live Now. Like Meg Rosoff’s 2004 young-adult novel of the same name, this Film4-backed production is a speculative drama about an American teenager (Saoirse Ronan) who’s spending a summer in the English countryside with her cousins (MacKay, Tom Holland, and Peppa Pig voice actress Harley Bird) when nuclear war breaks out.

As cousin Edmond, MacKay isn’t the lead in How I Live Now, but it gives us the spectacle of him being a YA dystopia-era heartthrob more magnetically than any of his counterparts in the wave of big post-Hunger Games Hollywood movies. It’s less about casting a pretty face, and more about giving him eccentric material like wearing comfy jumpers, taming a hawk, whispering to a cow – all the stuff girls wish more guys would do.

As MacKay explained in an interview with The Scotsman: “The costume designer encouraged me to think about what he should wear, and what it says about him to the audience. And because Edmond is practical, he wears a jumper that used to be his mum’s, because it feels nice, and it fits him. It’s a little eccentric to wear your mum’s pink jumper, but he doesn’t care what other people think and it’s a nice, homely jumper. It roots him at home and shows his connection to his family.”

MacKay lends credibility to that aforementioned cow whispering scene too. Filmed and released between the first and second Hunger Games movies, Macdonald’s film zags where others in this particular trend zig.

It starts like Enid Blyton’s The Famous Five then goes more like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, but it’s elevated by a promising young cast and an evocative sense of doom. Not unreasonably, the Letterboxd page for this one is very hung-up on cousins having sex, as Ronan and MacKay’s characters do.


For Those In Peril

‘I remember when we were little, we’d pretend like we were fish swimming in the ocean. We’d go down together, seeing who could stay under the longest.’

Likely the most underseen film of the three, For Those In Peril is an indie drama with MacKay once again in the lead, this time as Aaron, the sole survivor of an unexplained fishing accident that has rocked the small Scottish community where he lives. Bouncing between conventional photography, phone footage and news reports, this is an eerie and grown-up fable with an all-consuming atmosphere and a cracking lead performance.

Named for a famous line in “Eternal Father, Strong To Save” – a hymn for those lost at sea – the film dallies in family drama, wrenching psychological horror, and a potentially supernatural quality, and every strand is woven together beautifully by writer-director Paul Wright.

It’s deliberately paced across its 92-minute runtime, but MacKay’s screen presence grounds the dreamlike state in which a lot of it unfolds. He also plays well off the brilliant supporting cast, including Kate Dickie as the mother who’s lost one son in the fateful accident and now has to protect Aaron, and Michael Smiley, who violently blames our protagonist for the community’s loss.

Harrowing and mysterious in its telling, For Those In Peril was also backed by Film4, and outside of discs and streaming rentals, it’s where you’d most likely see it – though as far as we can see, it was last broadcast in the middle of the night on 5th August 2020, so it’s been a while.


At the box office

Opening with £770k from 400 screens, Sunshine On Leith was MacKay’s highest new entry at number three, behind the second weekends of Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners and Filth, which soared to second place after adding an extra 340 screens. It’s no Barbenheimer, but I went for the Edinburgh double bill with Filth and Sunshine On Leith that weekend and had a lovely time.

The PG-certificate Proclaimers musical climbed to second place in its second week, declining just five percent as word of mouth did its thing. It drew £4.1m before the end of its cinematic run, becoming the 65th highest-grossing film of 2013.

On 349 screens in the same frame, How I Live Now received more mixed reviews and opened at number 12 with £232,000. Hunger Games comparisons loomed large in those reviews, some of them positive, but this had stronger violence, language and sex than the Lionsgate blockbuster, and had a 15 certificate rather than a 12A.

Elsewhere, For Those In Peril arrived with rave reviews from its Cannes Critics’ Week screening earlier in the year but was a much smaller independent release and drew £2,427 from just four screens. It’s the sort of film you have to seek out, whether on the big screen or now on small ones.

MacKay was nominated for a BAFTA Rising Star award the following year (though Will Poulter won the public vote), and he’s continued to go from strength to strength, including notable roles in 2014’s Pride, 2016’s Captain Fantastic, and 2019’s True History Of The Kelly Gang.

He hasn’t had another treble like this, which at least might be a sign that he has more of a profile now, but his biggest box-office success came with a leading role in Sam Mendes’ wartime actioner 1917. Appreciating that 2020 was a slimmer box-office year than usual with cinema closures, the film did big business while they were open and topped the UK’s annual highest-grossing list.

MacKay will next be seen in the British revenge thriller Femme, (opening 1st December) in which he plays a closeted gay man who takes part in a homophobic attack on a drag queen, and he’s also starring opposite Léa Seydoux in the epic French-Canadian sci-fi romance The Beast, which is due out next year.

Release date trivia aside, Sunshine On Leith, How I Live Now, and For Those In Peril make a nice showcase of George MacKay’s versatility as an actor – he sings, he whispers to cows, he… well, we’re not gonna spoil what he does at the end of For Those In Peril, but it’s something!


Thank you for visiting! If you’d like to support our attempts to make a non-clickbaity movie website:

Follow Film Stories on Twitter here, and on Facebook here.

Buy our Film Stories and Film Stories Junior print magazines here.

Become a Patron here.

Share this Article:

More like this