Location Nation: A Regional Irish Cinema Part 1: The Wild Atlantic Way and The West
God's Creatures (Saela David, Anna Rose Holmer, 2022) (Photo source, A24)
Recent regional Irish films exhibit the emergence of new voices. These films speak to a new emphasis on rurality, with regional areas outside the urban centres creating a spate of site-specific narratives that navigate territories shorn of recognizable and iconic landmarks, physically and philosophically distanced from previous city-based works. This announces a re-territorialising of landscapes and locales marked by previous visiting filmmakers, from Robert O’Flaherty, John Ford and David Lean, to Stanley Kubrick and Alan Parker. As much ordnance as critical survey, this queries the influence of official agencies in film funding- something that indicates a wider view of cinema’s potential in attracting tourism: an ironic move in a country which has seen its population almost double due to foreign immigration in the past twenty-five years. Irish filmmakers appear to be taking back control. But as the narrative of the country alters irrevocably, what exactly are they saying? And do these films cohere around a single focal concern in modern Irish life or are they telling the same old stories?
Taking Back Control?
Irish cinema appears to be in a state of rude good health. The last six years have seen distinctive cinematic voices emerge, telling stories from outside the country’s urban centres while the familiar Dublin-centric iconicity that for so long has anchored suburban locations on the international screen particularly during the so-called Celtic Tiger era recedes somewhat. Mostly made by local filmmakers, these productions represent something of a new expressive maturity in the filmmaking scene, with 2019 marking a kind of turning point in confidence that culminated in the Academy Award nominations for several Irish films in 2023.
Catherine Ryan Howard’s 2022 novel about movie making Run Time has some caustic comments about the perception of Irish films:
It was just the sort of project that got generously funded in Ireland and then lauded with praise on its release, before failing spectacularly to find an audience, because no one wanted to watch gloomy things about dying men and lost sons at the cinema on Friday night. (Catherine Ryan Howard, Run Time: 60)
That points to the auteur-driven arthouse tendency that has had the anticipated reception; however a move towards the mainstreaming of genre production has opened up filmmakers to distribution by streaming services. The net of filmmakers has recently spread to encompass a pleasing number of new women writers and directors including Kate Dolan (You Are Not My Mother, 2021), Neasa Hardiman (Sea Fever, 2019), Joe Lawlor & Christine Molloy (Rose Plays Julie,2020) and actress and writer Clare Dunne (Herself, 2022), among others. Alongside this increase in visibility is a wider penchant for the horror genre. This development coincides with what might be described as a more literary tendency popular among other, arthouse-oriented (and principally male) filmmakers in the tradition established by Neil Jordan and Jim Sheridan, who have both juggled a personal cinema with big budget Hollywood productions with Sheridan now making documentaries for television. What is interesting of course is the sociopolitical change that has occurred in the Republic of Ireland since 1998 with a huge influx of immigrants even during the COVID-19 lockdowns and how Irish cinema has been handling it – or if it is dealing with it at all at a time when freedom of speech is increasingly hampered by legislation designed to prevent discussion, affecting journalism and the arts as well as the wider social nexus. In a country where censorship has an ugly past, the ongoing attempts to stifle commentary, interpretation and analysis has a worrying precedent. Of particular interest for cinema is the increasing representation and figuring of rural Ireland, where there are mixed messages about a kind of liminal existence: suggesting through genre tropes in certain films the presence of something unwanted, something unspoken – reminiscent of the kind of cinema that emerged under fascist juntas such as that of Franco’s Spain. If Irish people are now being colonized and marginalized in their own country as the recent Census figures would suggest, how is that being addressed?
“Theme,” states Margaret Mehring, “is the reason for telling stories. Theme is the work of the artist … A theme emerges from the combination of all of the filmic and dramatic elements – both linear and non-linear. It is none of the individual elements but the amalgamation of all. It emerges as the end result of the many threads woven in a particular manner to communicate a particular statement. It is what the completed tapestry says” (Mehring,1990: 221; 223). According to Scriptreader Pro, “the theme in a screenplay is a dramatic question. It’s the writer’s point of view that they wish to express about a specific subject” (https://www.scriptreaderpro.com/screenplay-theme/). That website advocates expressing a film’s themes through characters’ actions; dialogue; and through objects. What can be observed in this cycle of films of rural origin tends towards storytelling devices of Freudian drama, tricky and toxic masculinity, lonely men and troubled fathers, estrangement, male violence, female fortitude, misogyny, emigration, place, space and identity, home, family conflict and legacy, religion, maternal sacrifice, strangers and returning prodigals disrupting communities, arrested development, inheritance and death.
Dialogue can be pithy or decorative, colloquial or plain; while physical correlatives can usually be found in the landscape with water figuring as a source of either inspiration, renewal, a reflective mirror, spirituality and a life force, or, a cause of death. A film’s conclusion typically expresses the writer’s point of view. The resolutions in this group of films concern new directions and some can prove fatal. Rural Irish cinema has its basis in the films that precede it over a forty-year period but in invoking the ideas and turning them inside out they sometimes speak loudest when they say nothing at all. The patterns, form and meaning are worth examining although it must be remembered that these films do not form a co-ordinated response by a group united in a single viewpoint, rather a perceptible set of narratives serving as a conduit for feelings, characters and place. If there is a structural weakness in the industry it is in its apolitical stance as it recycles old tropes in a bricolage of familiarity.
The significance of cinema to the wider perception of Ireland and particularly the tourism industry is reflected in the website of the Discover Ireland tourism body which classifies the burgeoning trend to visiting film locations under three headings: Coastal Escapes, Family Fun and Arts and Culture. This rebounds back on the funding of the films themselves which receive funding from vested local interests. Funding from the Irish Film Board (renamed Fís Éireann or Irish Screen) is now co-opted alongside regional funding development from County Councils across the Republic. Along with the Section 481 (formerly Section 35) tax writedown, this can count for a very significant percentile of a total production budget often finished with a European co-producer and international distributors –which has implications for casting and crew. With a preponderance of vested local and national financial interests to promote the country’s image what are these films saying about the country as it is now? Mapping recent rural Irish cinema across the reality of contemporary Irish experience may produce some answers.
The Wild Atlantic Way: How the New Tourism Nurtures the New Cinema
The Irish Tourist Board’s development of the west coast as a destination pathway feeding into international air services to Shannon, Galway and Mayo has seen a complementarity in cinema with the evolution of the Irish road movie, traversing the land from Kerry up to Donegal and back again with the ease of the stealth aircraft the US supposedly used to test on that route back in the late 1980s (according to allusive contemporary sidebars in The Irish Times).
Established in 2015 as a tourist initiative and brand and market strategy, the 1,600 mile defined coastal route spans the west of Ireland from Donegal in the North to Cork in the South, from Inishowen to Kinsale.
According to the dedicated website,
The wild Atlantic with its unrestrained and untameable tides and storms has continuously been moulding the west coast of Ireland. With a constant meeting of water and land, a deeply indented and wild terrain has emerged with towering cliffs, spellbinding bays and beaches, mystical islands, always changing and never reaching the end. In the isolation or perhaps expressed in a different way living near and with the Atlantic at your doorstep has ensured that old traditions and the Irish language have been preserved. A trip along the Wild Atlantic Way is also an encounter with the past.
The creation of the route was part of a wider development, as environmental journalist Michael Viney explains: it was conceived as a part of the (then) draft National Landscape Strategy according to principles and goals in the European Landscape Convention. He quotes from the report:
“Our landscape supports a myriad of cultural, political, ecological, physical, geological, psychological, historical, social and economic processes imbued with meanings and associations. It is a dynamic, multi-functional, multi-dimensional space hosting many forms of life" …
It goes on to embrace landscape’s inspiration of literature, poetry, song and the visual arts, customs, stories, beliefs, mythologies and histories, not to mention “dinnseanchas, or place-lore.” (Viney, 2023: unpaginated)
The integrated approach with its socioeconomic aspect is clearly defined with a touristic aspect in mind as funds are directed to the cinema of attractions.
Achill Island & Mayo:
My Sailor, My Love (2022)
In her review of this March 2023 release, the reviewer for The Sunday Times (Ireland Edition) pinpoints one reason films are made in Ireland:
Achill Island in Co May is fast becoming Ireland’s favourite movie backdrop. Film-makers are attracted by the gorgeous western light, the dramatic curves of the topography, and also the Western Region Audiovisual Producers (Wrap) fund. (Hayes, 12 March 2023: 14)
With its targeted ambitions, the WRAP fund (an initiative of the Western Development Commission and the Galway Film Centre in collaboration with local authorities) has indeed contributed to the country’s cinematic profile, and accordingto its website, funding of up to 200,000 Euros is available
to a feature film, television drama, animation or game that undertakes a significant portion of its production (including post production) in the Region (Clare, Donegal, Leitrim, Mayo, Roscommon and Sligo). Projects which can demonstrate a strong prospect of generating a financial return on our investment will be prioritized. WRAP is open to Content Producers involved in an Irish or Internationally originated eligible project with a sizeable portion of the finance in place and evidence of market involvement and recoupment potential.
This fund is a collective initiative of several local authorities: Clare County Council, Donegal County Council, Galway City Council, Galway County Council, Leitrim County Council, Roscommon County Council, Sligo County Council, Údarás na Gaeltachta (regional state agency which is responsible for the economic, social and cultural development of Irish-speaking regions of Ireland), ARDÁN (previously The Galway Film Centre) and the Western Development Commission, whose motto is “Supporting communities to grow, investing in businesses to scale and planning for the future of the western region.” The word ‘communities’ is crucial to understanding the interlocking functions and purposes of the parties – the promotion of the entire western seaboard region.
Any minute now you'll be talking about retirement homes again. Retired Merchant Navy captain Howard Grimes (James Cosmo) lives alone at his isolated ocean front home off the Irish coast. He lives how he wants and has a tricky relationship with his adult daughter Grace (Catherine Walker) who visits regularly, taking care of his daily needs as well as maintaining her own difficult marriage to Martin (Aidan O'Hare). Celebrating her father's birthday with both her brothers who are visiting briefly with their wives for the occasion, bragging about their latest foreign holidays, she hires widowed housekeeper Annie (Brid Brennan) two days a week because her nursing hours are increased and she knows her father requires more assistance than she can give: finding a pair of his jockey shorts in the kitchen sink forces the issue. Howard insults Annie who storms out, back home to the family pub run by her daughters Kelly (Nora Jane Noone) and Suzy (Carol O'Reilly). He asks for forgiveness and soon their relationship becomes romantic and he asks her to move in. He is quickly devoted to her daughters and their children (Molly McCann and Ciara Fallon) in a way he never was with his own family and particularly not with Grace whom he left as a teen to care for his clinically depressed wife whose later suicide by drowning we learn he blames on Grace. Now his house is filled with photographs of Annie's family. When Grace insists Annie is taking advantage of him and she herself needs help now that Martin has sold the house from under her and emigrated to Munich, Howard banishes his daughter and tells her if she wants to visit she must contact him in advance and to find an apartment of her own. She writes Annie a letter excoriating the effect the woman has had on her father's life –and by extension what he has inflicted upon her own. It is a harbinger of things to come. Soon afterwards Howard has a stroke while driving Annie and her young granddaughters and Grace has to clean up the mess –discovering that Howard had a TIA and Annie never informed her. But it seems Howard didn't tell Annie, either. Grace gets Howard home and makes sure Annie is gone. She doesn't reckon on her father's need for his new love or Annie for him ...
My father can be a little bit tricky. Shot on Achill Island off Mayo at the same time (Autumn 2021) as the better known The Banshees of Inisherin, this late-life contemporary romantic drama is a Finnish-Danish-Irish coproduction. Truth be told, as written by Jimmy Karlsson and Kirsi Vikman, it could well be made in any of those Scandinavian countries of financing origin since there is nothing specifically Irish about the narrative. The generational impact of toxic masculinity is deeply felt but is surprisingly dramatized not through the romantic relationship between Howard and Annie but rather via the brittle father and daughter dynamic, a blame game with seemingly no end in sight.
The production’s value to the local tourism industry is not be sniffed at: those drone shots of the curving cliffs and the windswept heatherish patchwork in grey rainy landscapes shot by Director of Photography Robert Nordström are quite bewitching and serve as a fitting correlative to the spare drama. It's no surprise it's another film to have benefitted from the Western Region Audiovisual Producers (WRAP) fund which promotes the coastal counties of the Wild Atlantic Way. This has echoes of the The Ghost and Mrs Muir (Joseph Mankiewicz, 1947), a beguiling fantasy about a dead sea captain (Rex Harrison) who haunts the beautiful and strong-minded young widow (Gene Tierney) who refuses to be budged out of his former home. The characters here however are very much among the living even if Grace’s existence is one of total compromise between a dull but difficult spouse and the father who cannot take care of himself. Cosmo impresses as the aged, complex curmudgeon who seems to care not a whit about the effect of his patriarchal personality and actions - until Annie comes into his life. Then he becomes the man he should have been with his own family. Walker is very fine as the pivotal character of Grace: an adult under pressure pushed out by an ailing father who is intent on making a second marriage and getting rid of (and probably disinheriting) the one child who has stood by him and become his caregiver, as she was to her severely depressed mother in his absence. This is a universal story of the middle-aged woman. When Grace eventually walks out of useless group therapy in the local hall (populated by women) we can only cheer. She finds her voice as the story finally gives her back her power just as her father’s ebbs away from him.
This narrative never moves close to sentiment, instead maintaining a clear eye about the sins of the father. Walker has the kind of braided up-do we might have seen sported by Liv Ullmann once upon a time in this Bergmanesque tale. Brennan is a world of emotion unto herself: the repository of everyone's feelings and her own, conscious of the tyranny she has disrupted with no hesitation about leaving at the first hint of trouble, wise to the impermeable membrane of family yet deeply connected to Howard. The letter that Grace writes to Annie is shocking in its cataloguing of damage inflicted by Howard upon his daughter: it constitutes a stark warning about what kind of a man he really is. Its viciousness is a palate cleanser that performs a clarifying function in the drama ensuring we realise this is a about the women’s relationship with a pathologically dysfunctional man. Their own connection is in a world of masculine asymmetry: as we remind ourselves, this film commences with pieces to camera by women in group therapy – not a man in sight. It is women who are constantly examining the contours of their reality, pre-determined by a misogynistic society.
His whole life has been about making sure his needs are met
Directed by Finnish filmmaker Klaus Härö, who was making his English-language debut, and previously made The Fencer (2015) and Letters to Father Jacob (2009), as well as Mother of Mine (2005) with the same writing team of Jimmy Karlsson and Kirsi Wikman, he explains the influence of Irish films on his own work:
I actually grew up with Irish films. When I started film school in the early 90s, there were great film influences from Ireland-such as Jim Sheridan’s My Left Foot and The Field. I was stunned that a small country such as Ireland-about the size of Finland, could create such landmark movies, at a time when Finland truly lacked a thriving film environment. Later in the early 2000, Finnish films picked up, and so did the audience.
So when we decided to make the film in English-language, we naturally thought of Ireland, including Irish actors. Local casting agents helped us find the amazing actors we have like Catherine Walker, who has been many great films, such as Dark Song where she had a fantastic screen presence.
For the part of Annie, we had the wonderful Northern Irish Bríd Brennan. For her character we wanted someone truthful, honest, and she gave warmth, a true voice to her character.
As for James Cosmo, he has often been cast as a bad guy from Braveheart to Game of Thrones. But I sensed that next to his threatening presence, there was a true warmth and sensibility in him.
On set, we were simply blown away by those actors. I often stay close to the actors when we shoot, and I would exchange glances with the closest in the crew, meaning-did you see what I just saw? It was just magic!
He explains how the idea for the unusual love triangle evolved:
We started brainstorming about the kind of story we could tell next and felt that many films
talk about first love, but actually few about final love. In many ways, it is similar to first love. It comes unexpectedly, sometimes through a friendship that evolves, it comes creeping in and when it hits you, it does full on!
The writers then started to think of opposing that love story between this man and his housekeeper, with the story of a third person –the daughter here– who is bitter and resents what those two people have. Jimmy and Kirsi created the characters but we had all witnessed similar situations.
All my films, in one way or another, deal with relationships with children. Whether they are young or elderly. You can never get rid of your parents, and if you have a very charged and difficult relationship, it will affect the way you behave. It’s only when you make peace with your own heritage, where you come from, that you can make peace with yourself. Here the father has done something horrendous-he left his daughter fend for herself and she hasn’t yet dealt with this.
But also, if you crave for love, and force love, it can drive people away. If you accept that you won’t have all the love you want, you will be all right.
Annie the housekeeper on the contrary, just takes Howard ‘as she has found him’, she is open, giving, and attracts love from others. She is also discreet about her own difficult past.
The textures of these very different but equally skilful performances add immeasurably to the film's tone. This is a mature work about the damage that people inflict upon each other and how sometimes it is simply impossible for anyone to change their essential character and the ingrained Pavlovian behaviour of a lifetime. Male thoughtlessness and cruelty create the conditions for female self-sabotage, seemingly through the generations.
The director had quite a specific vision for the physicality of the story:
I had told my Irish producer [David Collins] that I would like a setting that is both barren and romantic. I had a clear vision and wanted to have a house by the sea, with an apple tree. The producer said you can have a house by the sea no problem, apples somewhere else, but certainly not both at the same spot. In the end, we did find this beautiful old isolated house-with apple trees!! The wind there was crazy; some days the actors could hardly stand up due to the wind. But again, their concentration level was perfect.
The nature of the financing (reminiscent of the old Nineties ‘Europudding’ arrangements to take maximum advantage of tax avoidance/rebate strategies) influenced the soundtrack:
Michelino [Bisceglia] is a Belgium composer. A wonderful professional. Music is super important for me –when I was young, my friends were listening to Duran Duran, Bruce Springsteen I grew up with film scores– Nino Rota among others. After the actors, for me the music is the most important. When we knew we would work with Belgium, I checked on the web, googled Belgium composers-there were hundreds of composers, I was amazed. Michelino has a great combination of understanding the core, what the story is about, what a score is supposed to do and creating his own score that is a good match between Hollywood and something local and unique. He is another member of the crew, with years of experience, who was there to challenge me.
The finale is as subtle as you'd expect from such careful exposition. And there they are, the inexorable Atlantic tides, rough waves beating against the shore, receding and returning, expressing what cannot be said between people. Finally, there is a kind of reconciliation between the women. There's a lovely performance by the legendary traditional and popular musician Finbar Furey as the wedding singer: last seen in Gangs of New York!
The Banshees of Inisherin (2022)
Some things there's no moving on from. And I think that's a good thing. 1923, on the small fictional Irish island of Inisherin during the Irish Civil War. Folk musician Colm Doherty (Brendan Gleeson) abruptly begins ignoring his long-time friend and drinking buddy Pádraic Súilleabháin (Colin Farrell). Pádraic, though nice and well liked by the islanders, is too dull for Colm who wishes to spend the remainder of his life composing music and doing things that he will be remembered for in the time he has left –although he isn't dying. Pádraic is unnerved and saddened by the loss of one of his few friends; as Pádraic grows increasingly distressed at the rejection, Colm becomes more resistant to his old friend's attempts to speak to him. Colm eventually gives Pádraic an ultimatum: every time he bothers him or tries to talk with him, he will cut off one of his own left fingers with a pair of sheep shears which would mean he couldn't continue playing the fiddle. Though Pádraic's caring sister Siobhán (Kerry Condon) and troubled local man Dominic the gombeen (Barry Keoghan) who is the son of local Garda thug Peader Kearney (Gary Lydon) attempt to defuse the pair’s escalating battle, their efforts prove fruitless. After a drunken Pádraic confronts him in the pub and then attempts to apologise, Colm cuts off one of his fingers and delivers it to Pádraic. As the tensions worsen, local crone Mrs. McCormack (Sheila Flitton) warns Pádraic that death will come to the island soon. Siobhán gently rebuffs Dominic’s awkward romantic advances; sick of life on the island, she moves to the mainland for a library job and writes to her brother inviting him to live with her. Colm finishes writing a song, which he titles 'The Banshees of Inisherin' and appears open to rekindling his friendship with Pádraic –until the latter reveals he meddled in Colm's affairs to get one of his Lisdoonvarna musician friends to leave the island on the false pretext that his father had been knocked down by a milk van (the man's mother had also died in the same fashion). In response, Colm cuts off his remaining left fingers with the shears and throws them at the door of Padraic’s cottage. Pádraic finds his beloved little pet donkey Jenny, now his only remaining friend, is found dead having choked on one of the severed fingers ...
Everyone to a man knows Mozart's name. Many years ago we attended a day of playwright Martin McDonagh's work at Dublin's fabled Olympia Theatre, nodding off during the second play and when we woke someone had died onstage and we were too mortified to ask what had happened, whodunnit and why. It didn't really matter in the end. In the interim McDonagh has become a screenwriter and director and here he reunites his supposedly charming hitman protagonists from In Bruges, a film that truly came to life when Ralph Fiennes appeared (this is a rule of modern filmmaking). For the first ten minutes of this we feared a recurrence of said social (and theatre) death. Unattractive fellows meandering from home to pub and back again in backward Irish backwoods doing damn all and occasionally coming out with anachronisms that drip with smug black humour. Nothing really happens for those first forty minutes here except rudimentary semi-social exchanges of pith while men drink bottled Guinness in a bar populated by the comic pairing of stage performers D'Unbelievables (Pat Shortt and Jon Kenny) and visiting musos. That's a long time to be watching a director deconstruct a John Hinde postcard. Thereafter it becomes something resembling a humourless Monty Python sketch about Irish islander mucksavages with a horrifying degree of self-mutilation that screams Metaphor! as shots ring out from Civil War executions on the mainland. It's like a steady digression towards a fixed point, as the title of Rose Hobart's memoir so archly puts it. That point is futility. This starts with Bulgarian voices and ends with something like a howl of despair. Television’s Father Ted is much more fun when it comes to expressing the archetypal obvious. Shot on Inish Mor and Achill Island where locations included Cloughmore (JJ Devine's Pub), Corrymore Lake (Mrs. McCormick's cottage), Keem Bay (Colm Doherty's house), Purteen Harbour (O'Riordan's shop), and St. Thomas's Church in Dugort., which look splendid courtesy of cinematographer Ben Davis. He explains his role:
Martin had a very preconceived idea of what that was and spent a lot of his youth in
and around [the Aran Islands]. So we drove up the Irish coast for days and days trying to find them. And the [period correct] houses and the pub, they didn’t exist anymore. If there was something, it was surrounded by modernity. And Martin wanted all the locations on the Atlantic coast. The prime locations were all built in. No one actually sees that when they [watch the film].
I spent a lot of time [on Inishmore]. I tried to spend my time in preparation and spent a hell of a lot of time photographing it and trying to capture what the island said to me. I’m not a writer as Martin is. I can’t articulate what I felt about the place or the feelings that place evokes. But I can photograph it and show you the images. There’s something very special about it, the raging ocean and the sky is so barren. It’s very beautiful, but it’s also quite melancholic, and I adored it. I loved it there because I’m not afraid of melancholy. It's something I quite embrace. That did shape the idea. But I think Martin always knew that. (Peikert, 2023: unpaginated)
I do worry sometimes I might just be entertaining myself while staving off the inevitable. The phantasmagorical nature of Irish history provides the bedrock of the film. It received critical plaudits and on the surface, there was a huge wave of public support in Ireland as it made its way to the Academy Awards in 2023. However, as has been noted by critic Ed Power, “underneath its Quiet Man curlicues, a much better movie strains for freedom” as Martin McDonagh elected to “shroud his character study in hackneyed Paddy-isms” (Power, 2022: unpaginated). And, as Jason Solomons reports,
Millions of words have been written and said about The Banshees of Inisherin since its release last autumn, and most of them were superlatives. But at Galway’s Film Fleadh earlier this month, I heard a new one to describe it: “Paddywackery”…
in Ireland, there was also a divisiveness about the film’s folksy vernacular and use of clichés, from fiddles to donkeys. One complaint to the Irish Film Classification Office, which made national news, described its portrayal of Inisherin’s “moronic” residents as “extremely offensive.” (Solomon 3: unpaginated)
Aside from writer/director McDonagh’s customary reworking of Synge, the openly symbolic story seems to derive from two infamous Irish-set films: David Lean’s Ryan’s Daughter (1970) with its retarded gombeen character (John Mills) apparently split into two characters here, Pádraic (Colin Farrell) and Dominic (Barry Keoghan); while the location of the Aran Islands served as the setting for Robert Flaherty’s Man of Aran (1935) a beautiful faux-documentary about shark fishermen: this might remind us that territoriality is the province of those sea creatures, while attempts at social anthropology can lead to misleading interpretations by interlopers however poetic the narrative and glorious the monochrome imagery. Local audiences flocked to Banshees in their droves but, as Solomon rightly avers, there was a distinctly Marmite (love it or loathe it) quality to audience reactions, anecdotally at least. Katy Hayes states:
…we haven’t been overrun with imaginative works inspired by the civil war. It’s an awkward subject, not least because explaining it is a complicated business. And artistically, when you’re explaining, you’re losing. And then along comes Martin McDonagh’s film The Banshees of Inisherin, unprompted by any state initiatives and distributed by Disney...
For all his Grand Guignol over-the-topness, black comedy and fondness for maiming body parts, McDonagh is a seriously political artist…
A fairytale air pervades, complete with banshee predicting death …
The writer-director McDonagh, now aged 52, grew up in London with Irish parents from the west of Ireland. The legacy of the civil war is just that, a legacy, not a lived experience...it is inherited from his parents and grandparents. (Hayes, 2022: 17)
It may not be McDonagh’s lived experience but this allegorical film (which both shows and tells, breaking a fundamental screenwriting rule) concerns a legacy that while violent and incomprehensible nonetheless drives ongoing political conflict to the present day. Some of the publicity surrounding the film derived from Farrell’s and Gleeson’s reuniting with their In Bruges director and their effortless bonhomie on the chat show circuit. Even Farrell’s fabled bad boy past fed into print interviews with one journalist patently charmed by the Hollywood star:
Farrell’s answers to simple questions tumble into monologues that start and end on entirely different subjects but keep you transfixed. His undulating Irish accent helps. As do his matinee idol looks and brown eyes. (Dean, 2022: 4)
From a structural perspective, the narrative is flawed, with little happening in the first thirty minutes, more or less. Perhaps that’s the long shadowy effect of Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960) in which (spoiler alert) the heroine is killed after approximately the same running time. As an increasingly unfunny Pythonesque comedy unfolds, repetitively, Banshees glides into a melodramatic form on the back of clichéd characters; loaded presumptions about somewhat anachronistic politicking (cutting your fingers off to spite your face as overloaded metaphor for pointlessly violent Republicanism); and an incestuous homosexual paedophile thrown into the dramatic mix to presumably explain gombeenism (that peculiarly native kind of idiocy). Perhaps only a British theatre writer could get away with these kinds of tropes yet the press apparently accepts and promotes London-born McDonagh’s Irishness as if this were a kind of homecoming for the West’s most prodigal son. Funding was secured from independent company Blueprint Pictures, Film4 and TSG Entertainment Finance, an American film backer. Yet above and beyond the problems in this shallow setup a collection of expert and startling dramatic performances from a now well-known international cast limns the black heart that is at the centre of the narrative, with the film’s stunning cinematography capturing the cliff edge dramatics and sparking the interest of tourists. The conclusion is wretched and wrenching, despite evident problems in the construction.
God’s Creatures (2022)
We could have been anything – teachers, nurses. Hairdressers! A remote Irish fishing village: the present day. Aileen O’Hara (Emily Watson) works as a shift supervisor at the local seafood processing plant alongside Mary Fitz (Marion O’Dwyer), whose son Mark recently drowned at sea, and Sarah Murphy (Aisling Franciosi), a young woman experiencing marital troubles with her husband Francie D’Arcy (Brendan McCormack) a local seafood supplier. At Mark’s funeral reception, Aileen’s estranged son Brian (Paul Mescal) unexpectedly returns after a lengthy and unexplained move to Australia. While initially caught off-guard, Aileen is delighted to reunite her family together alongside husband Con (Declan Conlon), daughter Erin (Toni O’Rourke) who is delighted to welcome him home, with her newborn son and elderly father-in-law Paddy (Lalor Roddy) who is in a vegetative state. Brian remains vague about Australia but says he intends to restart the family oyster trapping farm that was abandoned after his departure. Since Brian has no money or resources of his own, Aileen steals bags of oysters from the plant to seed his traps, which is witnessed by Sarah. The next day, Francie is irate over missing oysters from his order. Aileen blames a lower-rung worker and finds Sarah heartbroken about her decision to separate from Francie. At home, Con confronts Brian about stealing fish from other traps and selling them himself. Brian storms off and later begins working for another fisherman. Aileen and Brian visit the local pub, where they notice Sarah Murphy (Aisling Franciosi) arriving alone. Brian attempts to rekindle a former romantic relationship they shared in their teenage years and Aileen goes home by herself. The following day, fungus is discovered on the oysters at the processing plant and a moratorium on fishing is declared which devastates the community. Amidst the announcement, an already distressed Sarah faints unexpectedly. Aileen receives a call from the Guards stating that a sexual assault claim has been filed against Brian, who says he was at home with his mother the night of their bar outing. She lies to the officer, providing Brian with an alibi and doesn’t question him on the drive home. Sarah goes missing from her shifts. Erin visits Sarah, who confesses the events of the sexual assault following the bar encounter. Woman, have you not eyes? Her story begins to leak around town, namely with the factory coworkers. Aileen, Brian, and Sarah are summoned to court, where Aileen testifies that she was home with Brian during the incident. The court throws out the case due to lack of physical evidence, to Sarah’s dismay. When Sarah returns back to the plant, she is let go due to her repeated absences. On her way out she alludes to Aileen being the cause of Francie’s missing oysters and Aileen is sent home. Back in the factory co-workers start to avoid Aileen, while in the village, Sarah finds herself ostracised by the men. As Aileen becomes haunted by guilt from her actions, Paddy suddenly dies in his sleep. At the wake, Sarah makes an appearance and spits at Brian: Aileen stops Brian from retaliating. During the reception, Brian is seen flirting with a younger girl, Emma Daly (Isabelle Connolly) and Aileen steps in. Brian loses his temper and a physical scuffle ensues between him and Con …
Her mother joked that we were going to be in-laws. The Irish Mammy has a lot to answer for – as in life, so in film. The age-old trope is plundered in this psychological drama written by Shane Crowley from a story he developed with his childhood friend, producer Fodhla Cronin O’Reilly and it deals with the horrifying repercussions for an entire community when a lie is told and justice hangs in the balance with loyalties split. Made by Nine Daughters, A24 and BBC Film with finance provided by FIS/Screen Ireland and the WRAP (Western Region Audiovisual Producers) Fund this will ensure more tourists come to the Wild Atlantic Way, a destination name invented for these purposes, this was shot variously in and around Cladnageragh, Teelin, Kilcar, the fishing port of Killybegs and Glencolumcille, beautiful villages in a wonderfully cinematic windswept landscape of Donegal which is actually a replacement for the original setting, County Kerry, at the other end of the country, where Cronin O’Reilly grew up. It’s beautifully captured by Director of Photography Chayse Irvin. It starts like a horror film with the suggestion of a drowning – reminding us of another coastal fable, Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975). That is not by chance: Sarah is silenced by the community when she claims to have been raped. And this narrative has the aspect of a ghost story too. By telling of a prodigal son returning to his doting Irish Mammy and committing a crime which she helps cover up and one which moreover is not in fact dramatised, just suggested, this has a sensibility that drifts into symbolism as well as containing social commentary about violence against women in isolated rural communities. That is emphasised by the Oedipal drama at its centre and the ritualised singing that punctuates it: this starts with a wake, signalling another kind of mourning and death on the horizon in a place where fishermen don’t learn to swim as befits superstition. The whole of the story is also about the harvesting and packing of oysters: that process is a structural basis for a narrative that revolves around maritime life.
As with many contemporary Irish films this appears to be set in some unspecified time, presumably the 1990s. The gifted Franciosi is immensely sympathetic as the young woman who becomes persona non grata; Mescal is of course as charmingly callow and perversely callous as his passive aggressive persona in TV’s Normal People. How this lie is spun and divides the town is the spine of the story. This clash with realist tendencies is reminiscent of Breaking the Waves (Lars Von Trier, 1996) and it is Watson’s performance there that supposedly informed this film which is made by two American women directors, Anna Rose Holmer and Saela Davis (the director and editor of The Fits), who capitalise and rely on the actress’ extraordinary expressivity. In a weird way Aileen’s lie might form a kind of psychic revenge on the girl who probably broke her son’s heart and forced his emigration years ago. However the screenplay by Crowley, from a story he developed with producer Cronin O’Reilly, rather shortchanges the performers and ultimately a Gothic story blended with Greek tragedy about protecting a rapist is perhaps unconvincingly and unpleasantly overwhelmed by some melodramatic tendencies. The return of the prodigal son and the irruption of a stranger in the community fits into an Irish storytelling mode. In the #MeToo era discovering that this admittedly unresolved film has had immense problems finding a distributor leaves a sour aftertaste. Don’t you want to hear her side of the story?
The screenplay by Shane Crowley was based on a story conceived with producer Fodhla Cronin O’Reilly, whose own family has a background in fishing, albeit the story was actually set in the South where she grew up – the other end of the country.
As Caitlin Quinlan observes,
The lack of clarity surrounding Brian’s past is an effective, if somewhat obvious, directorial decision that speaks to the way blind eyes are turned to past behaviours and incidents in this community; a collective misogyny allows men like Brian to be sheltered from accountability and women like Sarah to be destroyed. (Quinlan, 2023: 85)
The American women co-directors (Holmer directed The Fits and Rose served as editor on that production), were interviewed for the British Film Institute:
“The first point of connection for us was the lyricism and poetry of Shane’s screenplay,” says Holmer. “When we read it, we felt transported to the west coast of Ireland. And in particular, Aileen was someone we felt we hadn’t quite seen on screen before. Her interiority was something we were haunted by. We then developed a screenplay with Shane and Fodhla for another two and a half years. We went multiple times almost entirely to Kerry, which is where the film’s set, although we shot in Donegal for Kerry. We spent a lot of time learning those crafts, watching the tide come in and feeling the elements.” (Slater-Williams, 2023: unpaginated)
According to comedian and essayist Maeve Higgins who interviewed the women,
“When this script came our way, we were still angry about the Brett Kavanaugh hearings,” Davis told me, specifically citing a letter written and signed by 65 women defending Kavanaugh the day after allegations emerged that he had sexually assaulted a teenager in the early 1980s. (Higgins, 2022: unpaginated)
The article by Higgins addresses the story problem at the core of the film:
God’s Creatures is a profoundly physical film, not simply an intellectual examination. There is blood and there are guts, cracks and slaps, crows at the window, black branches against a deep blue sky. The rain doesn’t let up, and the tide never stops. But there is no rape scene. Instead, we see the longer view, the context – this helps us to understand that the violence did not end on a pier in the middle of the night and did not begin there either.
Paul Mescal told me that this perspective intrigued him. “The central idea of the film is not the act, it is the aftermath, and it is the role that the community as a whole has, not only in facilitating the aftermath but facilitating the behaviour and the toxic masculinity at its core.” (Higgins, as before)
The physicality of the narrative intrinsically links the landscape to the lives lived in its heart. The tone of the story is given heft but also a Shakespearean or even Greek sense of the objective correlative – yet this tragic impetus is a #MeToo story set in an unspecified date although there are visual clues (eg the currency) that it is sometime in the 1990s – another example of an Irish film not quite sure about its place in national chronology.
Star Emily Watson states:
“The moral cogs crunching through is wonderful material to work with … The role of the church in this is very interesting because this is a religious community. They go to mass; they go to the blessings of the boats. They pay lip service, at least, to all the framework of Catholic morality, and yet they close ranks around a rapist. And there’s the painful irony of that for this young woman [Sarah] in a community where everybody just turns their backs, when they’ve all known each other since birth. What’s wrong with his picture?”
“We’re all complicit because the status quo is for all of us,” Watson says of the inclination of some to leap to a protective instinct for relatives, friends or colleagues, making reference to recent high-profile cases concerning the Metropolitan Police. “This examines, in a really interesting way, how that happens.”
“I love when a director recognises that you can just tell a story with your face. It’s like doing a miniature painting. I love that kind of detail work because it means you can be very patient and profound.” (Slater-Williams, as before)
The actual act of assault is never shown: so much of the story is told through Watson’s responses as a doting and self-sacrificing Irish mammy to her beloved son’s alleged desperate violence, so it’s interesting that she was cast due to her groundbreaking performance in Breaking the Waves as Davis says “her performance in that is a lot about the silences and what she’s thinking.”
How the filmmakers elide the film’s dramatic incident and focus on its aftermath, turning it into a kind of ghost story surprised Watson when she saw the final edit with its experimental sound design and the suggestion of drowning in the title sequence, which frankly calls up memories of another emblematic coastal fable, Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975. Holmer explains:
“It’s leaning into horror stylisation without it reading from the front as a horror film … We incorporated the conceptual language of horror through sound design and score. That has a lot to do with silence and tension and what are the inflection points; utilising camera and sound, sometimes completely against each other, to build this discomfort from the opening frame. It’s this sense of dread that you can’t quite put your finger on. It’s of this place, it’s of these people.” (Slater-Williams, as before)
Not everyone is susceptible to the charms of this emotionally wrenching drama: the reviewer on Roger Ebert’s website says
“God’s Creatures” is yet another movie about a mother realizing too slowly that her son may be a dangerous sociopath. (Henderson, 2022: unpaginated)
The reviewer for The Sunday Times (Ireland Edition) takes a similarly dyspeptic view:
Saela Davis and Anna Rose Holmer’s film reaches a level of melodrama rarely seen outside Russian fiction, and the story isn’t convincing enough to bear the weight. Still, the performances by Mescal, Watson and Aisling Franciosi (the accuser) keep you watching. (Porter, 2023: 20)
The real beneficiary to this drama it seems is Donegal itself: the same newspaper could report cheerfully a month after the publication of this that tourism had taken an upward swing – the joined up thinking that linked local authorities, community promotion and film funding having the happy result of visitor numbers to the locations identified by the national press and the Discover Ireland website.
It Is In Us All (2022) w/d Antonia Campbell Hughes
How does it feel to be back at the same place where you killed someone? Hamish Considine (Cosmo Jarvis) travels from his home in London to a Donegal cottage left to him by his late mother’s sister, navigating a tricky relationship with his father Jack (Claes Bang) over Zoom calls. However while driving from the airport in a hire car he encounters an oncoming vehicle and they crash. In the aftermath, injured Hamish’s tricky friendship with Evan (Rhys Mannion) the surviving passenger in the other car carrying Callum (Altan McDermott) the dead boy expands on something akin to an unconsummated gay fling. He peels off the plaster on his arm and proceeds to experience a breakdown as he comes to term with his mother's origins ...
Stop banging on about the past. This drama negotiates familiar Oedipal territory and plunders contemporary lore about the phenomenon of young men dying in car crashes in the locale. Derry-born actress Antonia Campbell-Hughes makes her directing debut with an affecting experimental thriller concerning frustrated masculinity, bereavement and alienation. The catastrophic car crash that triggers the story, with the death of a teenager, exists as a kind of metaphor for the themes of male identity, survivor’s guilt and the lingering effects of
family unhappiness. You're right. I didn't swerve. The director herself plays Cara, the mother of the dead boy whom she thinks wasn't even driving. She suspects Hamish is having sex with Evan and he is hanging around with this odd group of teens who dance ballet moves to a ghetto blaster outdoors. Her accusations make him break down completely; he is already haunted by his dead mother whose upbringing and brief return to the place she grew up were not happy. The association of the clinging maternal with the incomplete, self-destructive son is inescapable. Is she the personification of the female death drive? The open rolling uplands of Donegal are soberly contrasted with hotel corridors illuminated by the kind of red lighting familiar from horror films with cinematographer Piers McGrail careful not to overemphasise or romanticise the outside setting. Threat is perceptible everywhere. The conclusion sees the troubled protagonist surrender to external forces: he exhales, takes his hands off the steering wheel and lies back into the driver’s seat. His car is swallowed in the shadowy forest. In this eerie portrait of manhood you really can never go home again: this land will eat you whole. A mother should be able to say goodbye to her child and tell them everything will be alright.
Made with the assistance of Screen Ireland’s POV scheme, and shot on location in Donegal with the assistance of Donegal Film Office, actress Antonia Campbell-Hughes has made her directing debut with this affecting experimental study of frustrated masculinity and alienation, as Hamish’s catastrophic car crash serves as a kind of metaphor for the themes of male identity, latent homosexuality, survivor’s guilt and the lingering effect of family unhappiness. Hamish’s tricky friendship with Euan (Rhys Mannion) the passenger in the other car expands on something akin to an unconsummated gay fling. The open rolling uplands of Donegal are contrasted with hotel corridors illuminated by the kind of threatening red lighting familiar from horror films. The conclusion sees this troubled man surrender to external forces: swallowed by the forest. In this portrait of manhood you really can never go home again.. Perhaps the film is a reflection on those regular car crashes reported from that region, usually involving groups of young men (one infamous incident killed a half dozen); while single-vehicle collisions involving that cohort have generally been assumed to be suicides. This eerie narrative expresses that fear and operates as a kind of Rorschach test of masculine experience.
Calm With Horses (2020)
A film that went on release on the cusp of the first pandemic lockdown, this necessarily flew under the radar. A tale of what critic Mark Kermode terms ‘tortured masculinityand divided loyalties that pulls the viewer right into the raging bull mindset of its haunted protagonist,’ (Kermode, 2020: unpaginated) it relates a story of brutality in a coastal town.
I suppose I was a violent child. Usually to myself. Douglas 'Arm' Armstrong (Cosmo Jarvis) is a former boxer working as the enforcer for the Devers, a crime family in the west of Ireland. He lives in his minder Dympna Devers' (Barry Keoghan) house with Dympna's mother June (Simone Kirby) and seven sisters, one of whom, Charlie (Hazel Doupe) is sexually assaulted at a party by Fannigan (Liam Carney). Her uncles Hector (David Wilmot) and Paudi Dever (Ned Dennehy) order the fellows to sort him out. Arm's ex-girlfriend Ursula Dory (Niamh Algar) is still living at her mother's (Ally Ni Chiaráin) house in an estate with their retarded son Jack (Kiljan Moroney) and she tells Arm she needs money to send him away to a special school in Rochestown, Cork. Dympna tells Arm that Ursula is just using him. Arm follows Ursula and Jack out to a stables where Jack is getting therapy through horse riding. That night at a club Arm and Dympna get wrecked and Arm sees Ursula with Rob (Anthony Welsh) the English trainer:
Arm watched her bouncing head of curls, saw the crooked line bisecting her crown where the part in her hair naturally opened. Then the rein was not in her hand any more. The horse’s shoulder shot passed [sic] her. Its stride opened out. Arm bounced and bounced, skewing from side to side in the saddle. He tried to get his head up. Rebecca was gone, somewhere behind him. The reins were a loop of flimsy leather flickering along the side of the horse’s straining head. Nephin Mountain hiccuped violently up and down in the air in front of him. (Barrett, 2013: 128)
Adapted by Joseph Murtagh from the story in author Colm Barrett's 2013 collection Young Skins, this literary adaptation has the benefit of genre origins and amps up the terror of stylised yet realist representation with Gothic elements and a terrific use of coastal locations in Connemara in Galway and Kilkee in County Clare. For the first two-thirds of the film there's hardly a shot of Arm without a nearby body of water in this seaside drama hinting at spiritual renewal to come. It nourishes the nihilistic topography of the text. The film opens on a shot of his clenched knuckles as he tries to soothe his brain sitting in Dympna’s car, pods in his ears, listening to music, drowning out reality, until there’s a rap on the window. When this tough crime story gets very dark the Twelve Bens range (the Nephin Mountain in the source novella) looms over everything, echoing Arm’s haunted thoughts and fears, water far from his mind or vision. When the glass is shattered in the back of his bright red car it emblemises the destruction of his life: well, there’s a madman with a shotgun chasing him after all. The horse is like a creature from mythology, promising escape. The film’s visual design creates a rhyme that has dramatic payoffs: the water offers a kind of redemption, also exemplified in the white horse, a metaphor of hope for Arm but once it disappears from the shots (and this is a change of setting from the bogland in the story) and he’s on the run this can only end badly. A shot in a narrow street divided in three vertically and broken by the sea on the horizon, when the red car turns right out of shot, bringing Arm and Dympna to meet the uncles, is echoed in the last sequence when a similar frame shows Ursula (named Rebecca in the story) and Jack at a playground. Water is replaced by gravity, solidity, dry land: terra firma.
“You scared?” Arm said.
“Scared? Of a couple of auld lads?” Dympna laughed.
“Arm, you are the scariest man I know, considered coldly. You could put me in a coma, barehanded, in two minutes flat and most everyone else around. But I’m not scared of you, how could I be?”
Dympna glugged his Fanta.
They were beyond the farmsteads now, into reefs of bogland infested with gorse bushes. Bony, hard thorned and truculently thriving, the gorse bushes’ yellow blossoms were vivid against the grained black sheen of the sumpwaters, the seamed bog fields. The sky was clearing itself of clouds. The day was on its afternoon wane, already. (Barrett, 2013: 135)
This panorama of pain is not without black humour: as in much cinema of the Nineties and beyond, the shade of Tarantino hovers over a rib-tickling conversation when Needles (Ryan McParland) suggests fleeing to Mexico with the money they plan on stealing from the spinster Máire Mirkin (Bríd Brennan) that Hector is dating. This is met with derision from Dympna who reasons that as Ireland is not America they would require transatlantic flights and visas and probably have to go via Atlanta. Then Arm suggests travelling to Rochestown in Cork – which they all agree would make more sense (but he knows as they do not that it’s also where Ursula is enrolling Jack in a school for children with special needs.) It’s a very funny scene, offering relief from and underlining how deeply unfunny the scenario really is.
Jarvis is immensely impressive as the feeble-minded tough guy whose loyalties are compromised and his charismatic ferocity powers a narrative which threatens to lap into symbolic overdrive. However his Brandoesque affect and the expression of his disturbed emotions and his violent actions overwhelm any shortcomings in a plot as stark as the settings.
Keoghan is frightening as the pawn in his family's game, playing Arm off against his mental defects and his other obvious weakness: his severely autistic son and ex-girlfriend. And those mean rural streets are a relentlessly uninteresting pale grey, scruffy house after house creating a façade of blankness - with only the red car the lads drive lending colour to the dreary small town. There are two significant changes to the source novella, but they expand the story and aid the pace even if the ending is more contrived than Barrett's, concluding in a setup that suggests a western siege and perhaps a shootout or a plain old-fashioned murder. Some of the scenes are shot by DP Piers McGrail in impressionistic slo-mo with music by Blanck Mass functioning as more than just a guide track or aid, contributing to our understanding of Arm's blunted state of mind, brain damaged, drugged up and destroyed from killing a boy in the ring a long time ago, visibly damaged with a facial muscle constantly drawing his visage to one side. Others are sharply caught, vividly expressing a dilemma, using the landscape to inscribe a character whose options are hemming him in. Ultimately this is a grim tale of tortured masculinity, extreme violence and the inexorable pull of family, which is mostly terrible, in a town that offers nothing to anyone.
This had the misfortune to be released theatrically on the eve of the first pandemic lockdown, Friday 13th March 2020. For Irish viewers having a male character called Dympna in a feast of relentless male awfulness is a good joke. It’s the name of the female patron saint of the mentally ill and it means ‘fit or eligible.’ This is a very fine directing debut by Englishman Nick Rowland.
Set in the fictional town of ‘Glanbeigh’ (doubled by Kilkee in County Clare), it was shot variously in Woodford, Loughrea, Rosroe, Gort, Killimor, and Wellpark in Galway city, as well as boasting that car chase shot against the spectacular Twelve Bens. Among the executive producers are Michael Fassbender, the Kerry-born actor who has achieved global success, commencing as an Irish Republican prisoner in Hunger (Alexander McQueen, 2008).
Ireland’s contribution to the arts has resided principally in literature and transposing that to the screen has often proven problematic. Author Barrett says about Glanbeigh
the fictional town at the heart of that book [Young Skins], had a gravity. It sucked the characters close, but held them securely too. (Louisa Carroll, 2022: 12)
The author says:
“I was writing for years before I ever published anything. I didn’t write about Mayo then, or the kind of communities I was from. But once I did, the writing immediately got better, I suddenly had stories to tell. And I didn’t worry about local reception, mostly because I assumed the work would never be published, and even if it was, who would care? But anyone from the west I’ve talked to since – and to be fair, it’s going to be a self-selecting bunch – have enjoyed the stories, and appreciated the rough edges of the characters, their fallibilities. My sense is that sentimentality is what they wouldn’t be able to abide.” (Louisa Carroll, 2022: 12)
I half-love a child. Vulnerable but wilful 12-year-old 'Mully' Mulligan (Charlie Reid) flees a charity fundraiser honouring his mother who recently died, taking the money before his criminal father can. He has a mother-shaped void in his life, as well as the burden of that conman dad. But this boy's got balls; he nicks his dad’s stash of cash and steals an idling taxi in a bid for freedom. But, there’s an almighty yell from the back seat - hungover but headstrong solicitor Joy (Olivia Colman) and her newborn baby in the back and the three of them are soon travelling together around County Kerry, evading Mully's father James (Lochlann O'Mearain) and the police. Joy doesn't feel ready to be a mother and was planning on leaving the baby with her best friend Mags (Aisling O'Sullivan) until Mully's sudden appearance in her life complicates everything but somehow this boy knows more about being a mother than she does ...
I'm going forward, not backward. Shot around Tralee, Brosna and Ardfert in County Kerry, this Irish road movie has the patina of a contemporary fairy tale, with Ailbhe Keogan's screenplay incorporating a babe in the woods, a lost child, pitstops at a pub, a B&B, on a ferry (captained by a whistle-playing comedian Tommy Tiernan), a parade, an ice cream van. It's not just physical territory that's traversed –there's a strange maternal melodrama that reminds us of Colman's turn in The Lost Daughter (Maggie Gyllenhaal, 2021), with a traumatic near-drowning incident in her childhood the central pivot in her pathology and her legal nous a trait now, while Sideline Sue (Olwen Foueré as Olwen Foueré, now an eccentric white-haired cinematic mini-genre unto herself) is her streetside mentor. Foul-mouthed Reid knows a little too much about motherhood –he instructs Colman in the art of breastfeeding which is a narrative construct too far in the taste stakes and proves an ongoing theme. The tone is uneven and the story doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Together, Joy (Colman) and Mully (Reid) are effectively two wannabe lovable rogues –she's a canny solicitor who can lie to anybody about anything but finally can't lie to herself, he's a smart-arsed streetwise kid who has an uncanny feeling for babies. Motherhood does not come naturally to Joy; she feels she’s thrown her own dreams aside to give this screeching creature unconditional love. Her nightmare is her own neglectful mother.
Kate McCullough's cinematography gives the fabled windswept landscape known to all since Ryan’s Daughter (David Lean, 1970) a sharp look, like a John Hinde postcard come to life as they zip along the countryside in various borrowed vehicles of distinctly pre-twenty-first century variety. And there is a deliberately nostalgic sense to the sparsely populated rural settings –a quaint petrol station where Mully fills the car is a throwback from the kinds of forecourts now uncommon even in small towns throughout the land, washing by a river bank, piddling near a lake, driving a determinedly Eighties vehicle stolen from a sports pitch, they sing TV's Home and Away theme (never mind that Reid's own speciality is Cab Calloway's Minnie the Moocher, a real vintage number, literally making Mully the kind of child Irish people call ‘old fashioned’). The penultimate sequence takes place on a beach, the Freudian return to the location where Colman's character was formed, literally triangulating the film's stories. This feeling of a double glance backward is sustained in the casting among whom there is a young black woman who has a temporary driving licence, reuniting Joy with Mullie after he's stolen an ice cream van: this certainly speaks to a Once Upon a Time quality in a setting where the real population has been overwhelmed by foreigners, one of whose number is deemed necessary to bring an illogical story to a conclusion in the form of a crow, that bird gifted with the mythical power of guidance – the legend of the Morrigan. The reality of Ireland's overwhelming immigration numbers is in danger of throwing this bawling baby out with the realistic bathwater when that can of worms is even lightly addressed. It is a fascinating story choice as this outsider with literary significance skids along the road with her provisional driving licence, reuniting the film’s protagonists. This fundamental dishonesty with a political nod that exceeds the limitations of the narrative threatens the balance. Otherwise we are comfortably in Nineties territory.
This odd couple road movie with a buddy narrative coming to the fore combines with a maternal melodrama to somewhat discomfiting effect. Water provides a means of renewal, cleansing, washing and urinating, replenishment, transport and, in the Freudian triangulation of the narrative elements, returning to the place of the initial trauma –the beach– a narrative concerning an immature woman who takes breastfeeding instruction from a twelve-year old boy delivers an entirely odd story into something of a cheerful cul de sac. This hits many comic notes as well as tackling a kind of body horror – when post-partum Joy takes a shower at the B&B it’s a scene intentionally reminiscent of Psycho as all that blood pools around her feet. This jolting scene takes us into another realm entirely.
Made by Embankment Films and Ingenious Media with funding from Fís Éireann/Screen Ireland, this clash of narrative materials makes for uneven if entertaining viewing. Directed by film editor Emer Reynolds who displays immense visual flair and great timing. I am a responsible adult.
Dark Lies the Island (2019)
Cause of death: the west of Ireland. (Kevin Barry, Old Stock)
Screenplays are structure, as the saw goes. The often clunky clichéd scaffolding of literary fiction can become horribly exposed when adapted to the screen, leaving beautiful language nowhere to scan. The location of County Sligo probably entered the global consciousness during the first COVID-19 lockdown when the Sally Rooney adaptation Normal People became a television hit. Otherwise, although partly shot in Boyle, County Roscommon, the coastal county was ostensibly the setting for Dark Lies the Island (2019) a feature adaptation of short stories from the titular collection by acclaimed Limerick-born Sligo-based author Kevin Barry.
There was a wicked draw off it always.
Turned half the place crooked in the head.
Dark Lies the Island screenplay:
from Sarah’s Voiceover
Shot around Boyle and Lough Key, as well as the Sligo-Leitrim-Roscommon borderland, director Ian Fitzgibbon had previously made the TV series Moone Boy (Sky TV, 2012-2015, co-written by Nicky Murphy with local star Chris Dowd) in and around the town’s environs and he explained to a local newspaper why he selected this location:
“The town has an old world beautiful feeling” and he said he “felt strongly that the evocation” of the film was needed to be placed here. He said with budget restraints he was told filming on location in Boyle would mean at least a day lost of film shooting, but Mr Fitzgibbons said it was worth it… Lough Key is a major part of the film as well as the streetscape of Boyle which takes on the role of the fictional town of Dromord which the Mannions are based in…
Fitzgibbons added that he loved his time in Boyle and thinks this area of Roscommon and Leitrim is very attractive to film makers –it is Irish but a different view it has an “extraordinary landscape.” (Reporter, 10 October 2019: unpaginated)
The issue of the landscape and its significance features in Katy Hayes’ review:
Small-town Ireland gets rich treatment from cinematographer Cathal Watters, who relishes the opportunity to create atmospheric weirdness out of the town’s lake. Writer Kevin Barry shows his facility with idiosyncratic characterisation and witty dialogue, while director Ian Fitzgibbon makes the most of the set pieces, which are in effect smart mini-movies. Unfortunately, the whole is not equal to the sum of the parts. (Hayes, 20 October 2019: unpaginated)
The original lake that inspired this Grand Guignol might have been the one situated beside the similarly monikered village of Dromod in County Leitrim, where anglers are advised it is “best fished on the duller days.” The film is shot in such a way that a crucial sense of space – the actual location of the town and the proximity of the lake itself – is never consistently visualised. Perhaps that’s a consequence of the location but the film’s essence of Twin Peaks is confused. In a medium where spatial relationships can assist the viewer in a narrative hugely dependent on a kind of tonal poetry and extreme characterful eccentricity, this opportunity is missed. And yet the lake is presented as a body of water that dominates the thoughts of the protagonists. A basic rule of screenwriting is, Show Don’t Tell. The narrative here is weighted with a voiceover from Sarah Mannion, Daddy’s second wife, who is sleeping with his son Martin (Moe Dunford) and still loves his other, mad son Doggy (Peter Coonan) and there are frequent supposedly significant shots of the lake which don’t move the story forward. Nor do we see the titular island where Sarah spent time with Doggy when they were lovestruck teenagers. This tale of a feudalistic family-run town haunted by a grim cold lake on its outskirts seems to have inspired the worst elements of literary adaptation: literalness. That may be accounted for in the fact that Barry himself wrote the screenplay. Perhaps the issue of equivalence that Truffaut mentions in his 1954 manifesto Une certaine tendance du cinema français (Truffaut : unpaginated) is pertinent although Barry’s stories are rather different to the narrative here. The transposition of writerly talent to screen simply does not work well in this instance, as critic Chris Wasser’s Father Ted-inspired one-star assessment indicates:
Imagine an Irish Fargo, made by someone with a basic misunderstanding of how Fargo –or indeed, film-making– works. That’s the kind of nasty, tone-deaf, diddley-eye disaster we’re dealing with here. Cheap, incoherent and sorely lacking in structure and sense, Ian Fitzgibbon and Kevin Barry’s film is exactly the kind of oddball dramedy that this country used to be famous for. But we’ve moved on. We know better now. Down with this sort of thing. (Wasser, 2019: unpaginated)
This tale of familial dysfunction and small-town malheur is summarised by Wasser:
Pat Shortt is Daddy Mannion, the ruthless patriarch and unofficial king of Dromord. Daddy is married to Sarah (Charlie Murphy), who used to be with Daddy’s agoraphobic son, Doggy (Peter Coonan), whose loser brother, Martin (Moe Dunford), is also in love with Sarah. Elsewhere, there’s a creepy, cursed lake –and [comedian] Tommy Tiernan portrays a weirdo who’s just bought a chipper. It is every bit as odd as it sounds.
Comedian Shortt had made the jump from TV’s Killinaskully (RTE TV, 2003-2008) to feature films with a rural realist drama Garage (Lenny Abrahamson, 2007) and thereby serves both as messenger and message – a man from the provinces playing a serious head, as the locals might have it. Wasser’s take is a caustic but fair appraisal of a film that hits the wrong note with the kind of characters and tropes that are received well on the page but can suffer terribly in translation. The comedy is not funny, the tragedy of heritable mental illness and a propensity to suicide seem tacky. The repetitive shots of the lake make no sense even as connective tissue supposedly linking the fates of various characters. This destabilised presentation results in incoherence. This production exemplifies the issues of confidence that Irish cinema has traditionally suffered, depending on literary sources for cinematic narratives and falling foul of more outwardly-focussed critique of technique and filmic narration.
The Film Ireland reviewer has a slightly different view to Wasser but comes to a similar conclusion:
The feeling of being trapped is emphasised by cinematographer Cathal Watters, as he frames the characters in lots of close-ups, contrasting the expansive scenery outside. Something magical hangs over the film, as though Dromord has abstained from the rules of reality. The whole 90-minutes you’re waiting for the worst to happen to the Mannions, but you feel like absolutely anything could happen. The score by Stephen Rennicks (Room, Frank) enhances the mood – dark and playful at the same time, balancing light and dark. I really wanted to like it more than I did. I’m a big Kevin Barry fan, so I was interested in seeing how Fitzgibbon would manage it. Barry has such a distinctive style that sadly didn’t translate to the screen. The magic of Kevin Barry is he puts you in someone’s head and makes you believe you’re there. But in the film, the focus shifts between so many different characters that it feels like a diluted version of his work. Barry perfectly balances humour and darkness in his short stories, and I’m not sure anyone can do him justice. With solid performances and gorgeous cinematography, it’s a shame the film doesn’t live up to the book. Barry’s tone is a hard one to pin down so I think audiences might have a hard time knowing how to feel. (O’Ceallachain, 2019: unpaginated)
The project was supported by Bord Scannán na hÉireann/Irish Film Board, RTÉ (Radio Telifís Éireann, the state broadcaster), the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, Quickfire Films and Egg Studios, with Roscommon County Council thanked in the credits. It had a reasonable hope for success following Fitzgibbons’ earlier collaboration with Barry on an adaptation of his story Breakfast Wine in 2013, again starring comic Shortt, the vicious paterfamilias, the kind of character that we might recognise from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof but with added perversion – S&M, video surveillance and sex tapes, bringing us up to date in a determinedly anachronistic setting.
The Scottish contributor to www.entertainment.ie admits he hasn’t read Barry’s stories but makes a tentative analogy for this effortful melodrama of the grotesque with that strange lake exerting its peculiar and inexplicable hold over the denizens of this small town:
The set up has a Coen Brothers vibe that the showrunners for 'Fargo' so brilliantly captured. But rather than the wry darkness that follows in their films, we get something much more corrupt, closer to say, Irvine Welsh. I use these names tentatively, as it is very much its own thing. With this tone established there are plenty of jokes even if half of them teeter on total despair. For anyone that has lived in a rural setting, the Mannion family will be all too familiar. You are not really a village until you have one total bampot (Ed: this is a Scottish term for troublemaker) family that wrecks everyone's head. They are a horrible bunch and you rarely feel sympathy for them, so it is their complete car crash of an existence that keeps you hooked. It is the sort of film that really relies on the cast, as great as the writing is, it needs some outstanding performance to anchor it. (Anderson, 2019: unpaginated)
This approximates to the issue at hand – the ineffable problem of tone and the cinematic suitability or otherwise of what a screenwriter and filmmaker is trying to make an audience experience. We are reminded of what the great screenwriter Walter Newman advised, that the success of a film depended in the first instance on the subject. In that sense we might ask what the motivation was in choosing this particular subject for dramatization: in the title story of the collection that inspired this film, Barry describes of the ‘wounded’ boggy landscape which perhaps couldn’t be understood cinematically and that sensibility therefore had its critical correlative (Barry, 2013: 162) upon release because of the subject itself. (The film also draws on characters, tropes and dialogue from ‘A Cruelty’ and ‘White Hitachi’ in Barry’s book). Description does not a good screen story make; literary adaptations often suffer because the plot is revealed in its lack. This coverage of the film’s reception is not cavil: it illustrates the latterday maturity of the Irish film critic who no longer dreads parochial retribution and can operate without fear or favour now that the business is no longer wholly dependent on good publicity at local level (it got better reviews abroad). It is a measure of a fraternity no longer apprehensive about truthfully evaluating the success or otherwise of Irish films which can happily find foreign audiences in a new world of distribution praxis.
Limerick-born Barry’s work along with that of Colm Barrett is the subject of an article in which the authors’ respective complicated relationships with place is dissected as a running motif in both of their novels and stories albeit both use humour to offset sentimentality:
“For me most stories begin with place,” Barry says. “It might be a particular town, or a particular street, or just the side of a hill somewhere, but it’s a place that has a particular atmosphere or resonance that makes me want to create a piece of work in response to it. Once I have the stage in mind, I can get on with the characters, the dialogue, the story.”
Just as James Joyce parodied the sentimentalisation of the west in The Dead, Barry is also aware of the need for balance. “When you’re writing about the west of Ireland I think you face a lot of the same difficulties faced by writers of the American South, and I’ve always felt a kinship with writers like Flannery O’Connor and Barry Hannah. If you’re really true to the way people speak and comport themselves in these places, it can stray into dangerous territory; it can seem overripe on the page.”
Barry says, “You’ve got to dig beneath the surface of things and reach for the mysterious. See if you can see through to the ‘Otherworld.’ This is still, in many places, a strange and mysterious island and it’s worth the investigation.” (Louisa Carroll, 2022: 12 )
The difference between the writers’ approaches is noted:
In Barry’s stories there is a primal understanding between characters and the landscape. Barrett’s characters instead attempt to wrestle their subjectivity into place. (Louisa Carroll, 2022: 12)
He says that his adopted county of Mayo is\
“a source of endless creative nourishment and complication. As a material thing in the stories – the place they are set in – it is vital. It’s how I give the characters a shape and silhouette.” (Louisa Carroll, 2022: 12)
We might say that Canadian-born Barrett’s use of genre assisted the rather happier adaptation of Calm With Horses which suffered theatrically not because of a hostile critical reception but because it was released a few days before the first pandemic lockdown in March 2020.
The Cellar (2022)
Also shot in County Roscommon is a horror whose haunted setting at Clonalis House in Castlerea is the kind of location that used to be the repository of Civil War ghosts, a taint of heritage cinema, Irish-style. Writer/director Brendan Muldowney adapted it and expanded it from his acclaimed 2004 short film, The Ten Steps.
Try and see things from someone else's perspective. Irishman Brian Woods (Eoin Macken) and his American wife Kiera (Elisha Cuthbert) are marketeers busy working with social influencers who are trying to rebuild their business and stave off financial ruin. They move into Xaos [Chaos] House a decadent abandoned old property in the Roscommon countryside with their two children, teenager Ellie (Abby Fitz) and her younger brother Steven (Dylan Fitzmaurice Brady). Ellie voices opposition to the move, wanting to be back home with her friends but Steven is happy enough with lots of space to play with his drones. On the first night, Kiera and Brian have to go to the office for work, leaving Ellie to babysit Steven, much to her dismay. Steven tells his sister that a boy in his class said the house had been owned by a witch who made a pact with the Devil. He finds a secret room that contains older items and has Ellie play the sonographe (gramophone) they find: it begins with a man reciting formulas and then counting up slowly. Ellie shuts it off before it reaches 7 and tells Steven to go to bed. While Steven is sleeping and Ellie watches TV, the power goes out and Ellie frantically phones her mother. Kiera has Ellie count up to 10 - the number of the stairs down to the cellar where the breaker is located. Kiera notices that when Ellie gets to 10, she continues to count in a dreamlike manner. Brian and Kiera rush home to find Ellie missing and a search is sent out for her. The next day, unable to find Ellie, local Garda Detective Brophy (Andrew Bennett) decides that she has run away and will turn up in a few days, given her prior history. Keira knows something is wrong and investigates on her own. In the cellar she finds mysterious equations etched into the floor while plant-based paint on the far wall forms red haunted faces. After having the police look at it, they determine it dates to the 1950s and ask who owned the house previously. Brian says they bought it for almost nothing at auction from an elderly woman, Rose Fetherston (Marie Mullen). She was being bullied on her social media. We were so busy we didn't even notice. Later that night while Brian and Kiera are sleeping, Steven wakes Kiera up to tell her he has wet the bed. After helping out and sending him back to bed, she hears whispering from the upstairs bathroom sink in the form of a girl counting up. As the counting continues Kiera makes her way down to the cellar door. She opens the door and turns the light on before going down the steps to find - nothing. The next day Kiera asks Brian what the different symbols above all the doors in the house mean. Kiera takes pictures of the symbols asks her co-worker Erica (Tara Lee) to research what they mean: they are Hebrew glyphs that spell out Leviathan, a sea serpent in Jewish mythology [or a terrifying monster associated with the Devil]. Kiera plays the record from earlier and Steven begins to count with it while walking towards the secret room - Kiera snaps him out of it. While researching the man in the portrait that hangs in the house, John Fetherston (voiced by Chris McHallem), the cellar door opens and the lights slowly go out ...
I've had it with this house. With its haunted house setting it's hard not to make more of this Lovecraftian tale than it perhaps intends: the Big House of Irish lore has undoubted political allusions due to its associations with the landowning Protestant and English gentry and consequent phenomenon of arson which occurred during the 1920s wars, leaving many of those lovely buildings in ruins. And perhaps the idea of a beast in the cellar might remind us of another landowner, this time in the Scottish Highlands, the notorious occultist Aleister Crowley. But this is neither historical allegory nor phony biopic (although the quick will note the references to Anton LaVey). The immediate setup might call up memories of James Herbert's The Secret of Crickley Hall but that takes its haunting from historical occurrences and this swerves in a very different direction with the diffuse symbols and the introduction of physicist Erwin Schrödinger. It calls up images and ideas from the folk horror familiar from the English tradition and specifically the work of novelist Dennis Wheatley. The making of meaning and limiting the answers to confirm one’s own bias is the lesson here: what lies beneath – and what is in the cellar. The monster here is a mathematician who may have made a pact with the dark side in exchange for brilliance. If the visual rhymes don't precisely nail these ideas there is a committed performance from Cuthbert, making this a maternal horror experience even if her relationship with her daughter is not shaped to be reflexively caring. Her job in viral marketing with its sinister algorithms might suggest a kind of mathematical contagion starting with the online bullying Ellie endures and echoing the mysterious calculations emanating from the past. This is a very different animal from the tradition of Irish Gothic which has religious origins – instead we are in a non-specific technological horror with those riffs from a tradition in English cinema.
A slow-moving first half slackens the prospect of suspense - counting is not very scary! - then, enter the expert, Dr Remi Fournet (Aaron Monaghan) an innumerate turned accidental savant to explain everything: It's incredibly complex, like nothing I've ever seen before. Brian disagrees, saying All of this is decoration. It has no meaning. The chill factor in the house is ramped up with self-opening doors, mobile phones that go missing and turn up elsewhere, then the power keeps dying and everyone is obliged to exist in the dark. The slow pace quickens before the second turning point, propelling the story into a very satisfying third act. It's horrifying but it also turns out to be something quite subtle about differences between the sexes and their role in the demise of the family. This is after all a mystery referencing a family who vanished into thin air once upon a time in this Irish heritage horror that inverts the fairy tale with added alchemy, suggesting a connection with contemporary algorithms that make people do terrible things.
The scary Clonalis House is a going concern open to guests and there are some striking tracking shots of the family car speeding through nearby Lough Key Forest Park, all shot in beautiful autumnal tones by Tom Comerford.
However one critic takes issue with the lack of site specificity:
As genres go, Ireland has enjoyed some excellent horrors in recent years as our national cinema has moved away from kitchen-sink dramas towards genre efforts.’Extra Ordinary’ took full advantage of the natural blending of horror and comedy with a cracking turn by Maeve Higgins and Will Forte, while ‘The Hole in the Ground’ mined our rich folklore for unsettling moods and story. 'The Cellar', unfortunately, lacks humour and a sense of place from its script. While it's filmed in Roscommon and uses Clonalis Houe as its setting - renamed Xaos House for the movie - there's very little to suggest that 'The Cellar' has anything really keeping it set in Ireland. It could have been shot anywhere, but it just so happens to be here. (Lloyd, 2022: unpaginated)
An international co-production with Belgium, co-produced with Benoît Roland from Wrong Men, with special effects provided by producers NN Film P, investment funding for the film was provided by Screen Ireland, Epic Pictures, BCP Asset Management, the WRAP fund and Wallimage, BNP Paribas Fortis Film Finance, VOO & BETV and thanks are also given to the Arts Office in Roscommon.
The significance of the casting of an American leading lady was not just crucial to ultimate genre appeal, it formed an early part of the film’s attractiveness to the local funders, as the announcement by the Western Development Commission’s Investment Manager attests:
Elisha Cuthbert is internationally known for playing Kim Bauer on the Fox hit series 24 and studio comedies The Girl Next Door, Old School, and Love Actually. Other notable projects include the Netflix series The Ranch with Ashton Kutcher and the ABC series Happy Endings. Eoin Macken is best known for his roles in The Foresttwith Natalie Dormer and Resident Evil: The Final Chapter alongside Milla Jovovich. He also starred in the NBC series The Night Shift. With principal photography of the horror film set to begin in Roscommon this month, Epic Pictures will spearhead sales for The Cellar this year’s American Film Market (AFM) with Wildcard Distribution set to release the film in Irish cinemas next year. (Buckley, 2020: unpaginated)
This also reminds us that the location plays no part in the narrative – it might be anywhere. The only concession to ‘Irishness’ is the meeting between Kiera and Rose which takes place in a church.
Part of the publicity emanated from the supposed supernatural happenings during the shoot according to an interview with Cuthbert:
"One thing that I did notice that was very bizarre, and that was right after we finished quarantining, a day before we started filming; Brendan, Eoghan and myself all had three separate cottages, and all three cottages had an infestation of dead flies appear. "Thousands of dead flies. And it was sort of like 'Wait a minute, what's happening?', there's this plague of dead flies. It was really creepy, and so that sort of kicked off our first day. And they had to have an exterminator come and get rid of all of our flies in the places we were staying." (Cashin, undated: unpaginated)
For one critic, the protagonists are
figuring out how to best push content at target audiences. It’s the sort of new-fangled, 21st-century area of entrepreneurial endeavour people seem to love to hate, perhaps because the work seems so invisible and inchoate yet vastly remunerative. Given the moral calculus of horror films, that means they’re ripe to become the targets of even more insidious forces. (Felperin, 2022: unpaginated)
That commentary might encapsulate the situation of rural Irish cinema as a whole – searching for a new way to package old stories. It's not just the cellar - it's the whole house!
End of Sentence (2019)
Don't let the past control you. After being released from an Alabama prison for car theft Seán Fogle (Logan Lerman) reluctantly agrees to travel to Ireland with his estranged father Frank (John Hawkes) to spread his mother Anna's (Andrea Irvine) ashes in Ireland, the country of her birth. Seán has a job in Oakland and has to be in California in five days. At the funeral in Dublin Frank learns his wife had been close to another man before she went to Detroit and met him and wants to track him down after hearing about their motorcycle trip to Donegal. He reckons without Seán having a one-night stand with drifter Jewel (Sarah Bolger) who needs a lift and then rips them off leading them to try and find those ashes in a chop shop in Belfast ...
If we do this you'll never have to see me again. This road trip is yet another emotional journey and in another nod to some kind of agreed-upon trope is punctuated at a vital part of the healing experience between father and son by a near-miss with a deer. How many contemporary films is that now and how many set in Ireland?! This international co-production between Ireland, Iceland and the U.S. has at least the good taste to cast Hawkes – a man whose extraordinarily expressive visage alone invites sympathy. When we see his back scarred from cigarette ends we learn that paternal failings stretch over generations: his father did it to him and to his grandson Seán when they were separated and these shared miseries and memories of physical abuse are not the stuff of bonding. Frank is a victim of bullying and Seán pours it on too, exaggerating his weakness, exhibiting their different responses to cruelty. Bolger is the manic-less pixie dream girl, perhaps a somewhat restrained madcap counter to the OTT Oirishness of the sympathisers at the pub who provide the information that makes the trip more complex and yet more rewarding. You make a girl feel dignified, Jewel coos at Frank, aware of having to seduce the father as well as the son before she takes advantage of both of them. Frank has to hold the conflict together while unravelling the threads of his late wife's former life, dealing with grief, disappointment and failure. It's nice to see the father and son finally meet on the same page when retrieving Anna's ashes from the Larne ferry. The principal attraction for the view lies in the performances rather than the construction:
End of a Sentence is a reminder of how pleasurable it is to see genuinely pitch-perfect acting, the kind that quietly brings characters’ inner lives to the fore. The father-son relationship feels beautifully real, due in part to the precise, economical writing but also to the effortless chemistry between Hawkes and Lerman. Despite her brief screen time, Bolger is arresting and memorable, no easy feat considering that her character feels like a plot device. (Le, 2021: unpaginated)
The tourism film is still alive and well, as Ruth Barton reminds us and P.S. I Love You (Richard LaGravenese, 2007) and Leap Year (Anand Tucker, 2010) are just two of the more recent examples (2019: 118). The road movie motif is a popular choice for these stories of flight, recuperation and reconciliation which tend towards lachrymose romcoms with old-fashioned cars of the kind Irish people wouldn’t be seen dead in nowadays (a red Renault 4 in Leap Year), mythical allusions and the inevitable pub singalong (we get ‘Dirty Old Town’ here) or a wake. This road movie isn’t much different in that regard, but as it starts from a prison and winds up in a different kind of entrapment (a private lake in real life, in County Wicklow) with an underlying theme of territorialism marked by gendered ownership in this recycling of personal history and parenthood. Who’s in the driving seat determines much of the drama as well as the direction.
We might tut-tut at the geography (and the car driving the wrong way along the coast, stunningly photographed by cinematographer Karl Oskarsson ) but the race against time structure lends tension and pace to what is really a buddy movie and it's a nice showcase for those aforementioned different performing styles. A modest but pleasant drama written by Michael Armbruster and directed by Elfar Adalsteins, making his debut behind the camera, this was shot variously around Dublin, Clare, Offaly, Kildare, Cooley and Carlingford, County Louth and was produced with support from the Icelandic Film Fund. Sometimes you're the pigeon and sometimes you're the tree. That's life.
She won't just break you she'll take a Kalashnikov to your heart. In Sligo, wannabe photographer Pixie O'Brien (Olivia Cooke) wants to avenge her mother’s death. She uses her ex-boyfriends Fergus (Fra Fee) and Colin (Rory Fleck Byrne) to stage an elaborate drug heist on gangster priests which winds up with the men of the cloth murdered and Colin kills Fergus with a bullet to the head. Two smitten local boys Frank (Ben Hardy) and Harland (Daryl McCormack) join Pixie on the run from the hit man Seamus (Ned Dennehy) that her gangster stepfather (Colm Meaney) has set on them when they try to sell 15kg of MDMA back to the priest Father Hector McGrath (Alec Baldwin) who runs the drug scene on the west coast. It turns out Pixie has a very personal motivation beyond money - revenge for the death of her mother who was helped along by her psycho step brother Mickey (Turlough Convery) ...
These guns won't shoot themselves. British father and son team Preston and Barnaby Thompson write and direct respectively and this road trip down Ireland's west coast is bloody and violent and very funny, played by a characterful ensemble who revel in the opportunity to get up to Tarntino-esque antics in a picturesque setting shot rather niftily by veteran John de Borman who delights in picking out the 1975 yellow Mercedes speeding along the wet roads. Funded in part by Northern Ireland Screen, the eagle-eyed viewer will notice that despite the claim that this is set in Sligo and its environs down the west coast of Ireland, it was in fact shot for the most part along the route of the A2 from Larne to Cushendall, a stretch of the Causeway Coastal Route that follows the coast from Belfast to Derry.
There are some zingers but they're often let down by the sound which prioritises a crazily effective set of songs curated by David Holmes and some punch lines get lost in the mix (which does not include any songs by Pixies ...). Cooke is fantastic in what is likely her best role to date as the amoral (if not quite manic) pixie dream girl seeking to fight the patriarchy but there is also effective characterisation by Meaney and Baldwin. In this telling the world of turbulent priests has an entirely different significance: they’re able to handle drugs, guns and vast amounts of money. That’s one way to dispel with an Irish archetype. Excellent support is also provided by Cooke’s companions Hardy and McCormack (a mixed-race actor whose colour-blind casting is notable) whom she seduces into a homoerotic scene that definitely was not on their cards. Cooke’s accent is impeccable, thanks in part apparently to assistance from McCormack, now making a name for himself on TV in the BBC NI series The Woman in the Wall (2023) a mystery set in a Magdalene Laundry in Mayo created by screenwriter Joe Murtagh that is also shot in Northern Ireland.
I'm sorry we didn't fucking cover body disposal in our economics course
This picaresque boasts references from all over the movie shop, including Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (Michael Cimino, 1973) and is both rackety and fun with a very spirited tone. Comedian Dylan Moran appears as a very nasty piece of work indeed: the invested viewer cheers when we see what Pixie gets to do to him. Essentially, this is a Western in all but name so naturally there's a shootout that features nuns with guns. This is a solid piece of sharply hewn genre craic with a globally legible address that brings the road movie to the Wild Atlantic Way - allegedly.
Interviewed for The Radio Times Travel section which covers film location tourism, the use of the Irish coastal settings is explained:
Writer Preston Thompson came up with the plot after taking a road trip through the west of Ireland with his father Barnaby, who directs the film. “We drove from Sligo down to Clonakilty and never talked about making movies or making a movie in Ireland,” recalls Barnaby, “but clearly as we were going, he was quietly absorbing the scenery, and he came home and wrote the script.”
“If you keep following the coast road north from Belfast, it becomes more and more wild and beautiful. You’ve got the ocean to one side, mountains on the other, great sandy beaches. They shot a lot of Game of Thrones up there.”
“I hadn’t been to Belfast since the late 80s and it bowled me over,” says Barnaby. “It’s an incredibly vibrant city. You go out on a Friday night and it’s kicking off in the best kind of way. And then you get in the car and drive 20 minutes out of the city, and you have this incredible countryside and coastline, and so to make a film like this it was perfect. There are shots that you would think must be a million miles away from anywhere and it was half an hour away from central Belfast. It was extraordinary how close the wilderness was. The scale of it and power of the landscape take you by surprise.”
To capture some of the sweeping panoramic shots, the cast and crew also spent a few days shooting on the west coast in County Mayo. When they first flee Sligo, Pixie and her reluctant partners in crime drive through the Doolough Valley, near Westport, where mountains loom over two desolate lakes. “That road is one of the most breathtaking roads you’ve ever seen in your life – the way it unfolds is just extraordinary. There is a scale to the wilderness you get there, which you get in certain places in Scotland. If you’re feeling brave, you can jump into the beautiful water of Killary Harbour at the end of the drive – I recommend it!
On their road trip, the Pixie cast and crew then headed south along the R366, which winds towards Galway. “Even the Irish crew were gobsmacked at the beauty and wildness,” says Barnaby. “It is Joyce country.” Nothing, including damp days, could detract from the breathtaking views. “Even in the rain, it’s majestic. Some of my favourite shots in the film are where it’s raining or it’s just about to. Everybody loves a blue sky, but you get that great moodiness when the weather is more changeable.” (Webb, 2020: unpaginated)
So, despite the reality behind the implications of the film’s funding structure, the filmmakers promoted the Wild Atlantic Way as its founders intended.