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Archive for the ‘Irish Cinema’ Category

Jimmy’s Hall (Ireland-UK 2014)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 15 June 2014

Paul Laverty (left) and Ken Loach on set for JIMMY'S HALL

Paul Laverty (left) and Ken Loach on set for JIMMY’S HALL

Watching Jimmy’s Hall was an absolute joy. After reading some lukewarm reviews I was delighted to find that this is a film full of energy and wit as well as great music and dancing – and some serious insights into the repression of collective action in a conservative, rural society. Some critics have discussed it as a ‘minor’ work. Loach himself says the titular hall is a ‘microcosm’ (of the struggles of working people in rural Ireland). I would say that it is a film to inspire audiences with a belief in collective work and community-based art and culture.

Jimmy Gralton was a local hero in County Leitrim in the early 1920s and again in the early 1930s and has become an iconic figure for some on the Irish left with several books and a play about his exploits – which Paul Laverty lists among his sources. Laverty’s script is ‘true’ to all the public aspects of Gralton’s story but elements of his private and personal life have been invented to suit the construction of the narrative. The film opens with Gralton’s return to County Leitrim in 1932 some ten years after he left for New York as one of the ‘anti-treaty’ losing warriors in the Irish Civil War. Now, one of the other ‘losers’ Eamon de Valera is heading a new government in the Free State and Gralton believes he can return safely. As soon as he is home he begins to hear pleas that he should re-open the community hall (the Pearse-Connolly Hall named after two Republican heroes) built by local voluntary labour on the Gralton family’s land. (Flashbacks then show us the hall being built.)

The local priest making a note of all the locals attending 'Jimmy's Hall' – so he can denounce them from the pulpit!

The local priest making a note of all the locals attending ‘Jimmy’s Hall’ – so he can denounce them from the pulpit!

A typical Loach-Laverty scene – the community who run and use the hall discuss their plans for collective action.

A typical Loach-Laverty scene – the community who run and use the hall discuss their plans for collective action.

Gralton’s home is in one of the least-populated counties in Ireland (50,000 in the 1930s – a third of what it was at the time of the famine in the 1840s but nearly three times what it is now). There is no work and little to do – young people especially want to revive the dances, boxing gym and poetry and art classes. The hall re-opens and life improves but Gralton has enemies and it is this opposition that has attracted Laverty and Loach to his story. The opposition is led by the Catholic Church and the landowners – and also by the right-wingers from the pro-treaty IRA. Loach and Laverty have acknowledged that film is certainly linked to The Wind That Shakes the Barley. As Loach argues, after a colonial struggle any newly independent country can change its flag and ditch the trappings of imperialism but it’s much more difficult to change who has status in the community and who has control over what happens. Jimmy Gralton discovers that the old enemies are still in power. This is neatly summed up in a typical Loach-Laverty scene when the priest and the landowner meet to scupper Gralton.

In some ways, Jimmy’s Hall has a similar address to audiences as the Loach-Allen film Land and Freedom (1995). We know Gralton can’t ‘win’ – Loach is not a romantic and his films are rooted in historical accuracy (though not a history recognised by right-wingers). But what films like this do offer is a sense of the right way to organise, the possibilities of collective action, the pleasures of working (and playing) together and a clear analysis of what the enemy is up to. The strength of the film is that the priest is at once an oppressor, but also a thinking man who respects Gralton as an enemy. It’s interesting that the crucial ‘lever’ that the priest uses is to denounce American jazz and blues as the ‘devil’s music’. All kinds of metaphors are wrapped up in this stance – and the fact that Gralton brings in jazz to play alongside traditional Irish music, including music for dancing. The tragedy is that the reactionary forces in rural Ireland were set up to triumph over collective action. This is an important historical lesson that I hope younger people are able to learn from.

The Cannes Press Conference for Jimmy’s Hall is interesting in terms of Loach’s thoughts on what cinema can achieve. I think he would agree that young people in rural Ireland in particular were stifled by the Church up to at least the 1980s but that since then the international corporations with their movements of capital that first built up and then knocked down the ‘Celtic Tiger’ economy have taken over as the oppressors. In case all of this sounds like hard work I should add that Laverty has created a ‘secret romance’ between Gralton and the woman he left ten years ago and who is now married with children. Simone Kirby plays Oonagh delightfully and she and Barry Ward as Jimmy make a handsome couple.

A romantic moment in this warm and uplifting film.

A romantic moment in this warm and uplifting film.

Jimmy’s other love is his mother. So far I haven’t managed to find out who the actress is (or perhaps she is one of Loach’s non-actors?) Either way she is terrific, as are all the other cast members. I saw the film a second time on a trip to Ireland. I was worried that a second viewing might reveal flaws, but I enjoyed just as much, if not more so. Rumours circulated before Cannes that this would be the last Ken Loach fiction feature. Ken is 77 now and losing the sight in one eye (see Danny Leigh’s interview in the Guardian). A major feature is tiring and stressful but I hope he can make another one. If he can’t, I think Jimmy’s Hall is a good swansong. Ignore gainsayers, this is the goods. More reviews of Ken Loach et al to follow.

Posted in British Cinema, Irish Cinema | Tagged: , , , | 6 Comments »

The Stag (Ireland 2013)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 24 March 2014

The group in despair watching the carefree antics of The Machine. (From left) Andrew Scott (Davin), Michael Legge (Little Kevin), Andrew Bennett (Big Kevin), Brian Gleeson (Simon) and Hugh O'Conor (Finnan)

The group in despair watching the carefree antics of The Machine. (From left) Andrew Scott (Davin), Michael Legge (Little Kevin), Andrew Bennett (Big Kevin), Brian Gleeson (Simon) and Hugh O’Conor (Fionnan)

I’m not sure If I can make a full analysis of this film. If it had been a Hollywood film with the same outline synopsis I probably wouldn’t have gone to see it. I haven’t seen any of the Hangover films or any of the so-called ‘bromance’ comedies. What I have seen are some of the interesting spin-offs or alternatives/commentaries on the Hollywood titles such as Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz with Seth Rogen and the distaff version of a ‘stag’ film, Bridesmaids. Does this qualify me? I’ll leave that to others to decide. What it does mean is that the tropes of a ‘male-bonding’ comedy involving a reluctant bridegroom on his stag weekend are not so familiar that I couldn’t find anything fresh in them in this film. I enjoyed the film because I found its dialogue to be witty, its characters to be relatively new to me and the occasional references to contemporary Irish society informative. It does get rather sentimental at the end, but I can forgive that in a film which made me laugh out loud several times.

The reluctant bridegroom is Fionnan a rather precious young man who works as a theatre set designer. His bride to be, the rather more lively Ruth, is determined to send him off on a stag weekend. There are two odd aspects of this. The best man she has to persuade to organise the stag is her ex-boyfriend (and Fionnan’s best friend) Davin and her central condition is that her brother ‘The Machine’ must be on the stag. Davin is a university lecturer (in history?) and seemingly long-suffering. He doesn’t want The Machine along and proposes an alternative stag – a hike in the hills of County Wicklow, ‘bonding’ with nature and Fionnan’s other friends, a gay couple and a mild-mannered business type. Inevitably, The Machine turns up despite Davin’s best efforts to keep him away and the bonding with nature becomes a rather different experience. The script is by the writer-director John Butler and the best-known of the actors, Peter McDonald, who plays The Machine. It’s a script that has great potential but perhaps needed more work on its subplots. It doesn’t need to be longer but the number of sub-plots could be reduced and the remaining ones given a little more depth. Overall, however, as one Irish reviewer put it we do get to explore something about “the target of contemporary Irish masculinity – in all its post-Tiger, post-modern, metrosexual complexity”. The Machine’s seemingly loutish pranks do, of course, have a potentially positive outcome in puncturing some of the pomposity and hypocrisy which exists around the generally good-natured group. The film looks good and the scenery is lovely – the references to U2 are the only alienating factor for me.

The Irish Film Board backed the production and it is a completely ‘local’ film. UK audiences may recognise Andrew Scott (Davin) as Moriarty from the recent Sherlock TV series. Peter McDonald has been in many UK theatre and TV productions as well as several films in Ireland and the UK.

(In the US, the title of this film has been changed to ‘The Bachelor Weekend‘)

UK trailer:

Posted in Comedies, Irish Cinema | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Silence (Ireland 2012)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 28 August 2013

The landscapes of the west of Ireland captured in sound and image . . .

The landscapes of the west of Ireland captured in sound and image . . .

Silence is a rare example of a genuine ‘art film’ on a standard specialised cinema release (a seemingly contradictory description, but I can’t think of a better way of putting it). The film directed by Pat Collins and written by Collins and Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhríde, who is also the lead actor, has only a vestigial narrative. This involves an Irish sound recordist, currently living in Berlin, who accepts a job requiring him to record the sound of wild places devoid of human-created sounds. The recordist finds himself returning to Ireland and ultimately to the islands off the coast of Donegal where he grew up as a child. The idea as I understand it was to riff on the idea of folklore recordists/collectors who visited the west of Ireland in the 1930s/40s.

I suppose that Silence is a ‘road movie’ of sorts, but only if the narrative structural elements are the main criteria for generic definitions. The film is mostly concerned with visual and aural poetry. It’s effectively an ‘essay film’ in which the filmmakers explore the potency of landscape and how it can be represented through sounds in relation to concepts of family history, exile and migration. Nothing is stated directly. Instead we are offered the recordist’s (mumbled) conversations with a variety of characters he meets on his travels up the west coast of Ireland intercut with some archive footage and the sparing use of music, mainly traditional and classical. The key song appears to be the haunting Sandy Denny performance of her own ‘Who Knows Where the Time Goes’ which appears briefly in the film and then plays through the end credits.

Silence was shot by Richard Kendrick on a RED digital camera using vintage Russian Lomo lenses for an anamorphic image presented in CinemaScope. The lenses soften the image and give it a specific texture that combines with the emphasis on natural sounds of wind, sea, birdsong etc. The slow pace prompts the audience to listen carefully to the soundscape. The sound recording approach from Éamon Little and John Brennan was influenced by the work of Chris Watson (featured in David Attenbrough’s natural history programmes). At times the editing of sound and image is pushed to the fore with overlaps of voices and images and conversations drifting in and out of synchronised sound. This is discussed by editor Tadhg O’ Sullivan in the Press Notes. O’ Sullivan knows Pat Collins well and in fact most of the ‘actors’ in the film play themselves. Collins is a documentary-filmmaker exploring his own (and Mac Giolla Bhríde’s) feelings about the landscapes of the west of Ireland and the stories of the people who have left.

Eoghan in the little local museum on Inisbofin.

Eoghan in the little local museum on Inishbofin.

The west of Ireland used to be one of the most populous parts of the country up until the great famine of the 1840s.  Many people emigrated in the 19th century but a long slow decline then followed which seems to have now abated with some settlement by individuals looking for peace and solitude. But young people still find it difficult to get work and many have to leave. One of the poignant moments in the film sees Eoghan visiting a young woman in Inishbofin who has set up a local museum in an old storehouse. She speaks about going to boarding school and returning home to experience the coming of electricity to the island (which actually arrived in 2002).

I enjoyed the experience of watching the film in a cinema. It needs patience, close attention and lack of distraction to appreciate all its nuances. I would have found it difficult to watch on DVD and so I’m glad it got into theatrical distribution.

Posted in Irish Cinema | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Byzantium (Ireland/UK/US 2012)

Posted by keith1942 on 8 June 2013


Neil Jordan new film (2012) revisits the vampire territory that he explored in the 1994 Interview With a Vampire. Like that film this offers a distinctive take on the genre. This is down in great measure to the script by Moira Buffini adapted from her own play. She clearly has a taste for the gothic, having also adapted Jane Eyre in 2011. Jordan’s output is closer to film noir, including frequent femme fatales. This offers the most distinctive feature of Byzantium, the central and strong female characters of Clara (Gemma Arterton) and Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan). Clara is a vital sexually dominant character, played with relish by Arterton. Ronan as Eleanor is suitably restrained as a moody and rather fragile teenager. By comparison the men, human or undead, are somewhat pallid in comparison. The June Sight & Sound had an article by Kim Newman who traces the film vampiric lineage in Deadly is the Female. None of the titles he mentioned seem to have a woman with as much panache as Clara.

The film also has distinctive settings: one of the contributions by Jordan. We cut between a run-down English seaside town [actually Hastings] and a barren Irish landscape [the Barra Peninsula]. Visually the film is a real pleasure. We alternate from forbidding and mysterious landscapes, to the washed out neon-lit resort, and moments of vivid colour as the victim toll mounts.  The transformation from human to undead is both impressive and distinctive.

The plot brings together a variety of strands from vampiric literature and C19th melodrama. Some of this is deliberately over the top, and whilst there are surprises some of the mechanics are signalled well in advance. The title Byzantium seems to be a rather arbitrary inclusion with a link to the early medieval world.

I watched the film at the Vue Cinema in central Leeds. The foyer proudly informs patrons that all the projectors are 4K; however, they neglect to provide any information about whether the DCPs are 2K or 4K. I remember a profile of the Chief Executive of Vue in The Guardian, where he said he was ‘passionate about film’. His cinemas need a little more of this. The film was screened in 2.35:1 though the masking remains as for 16:9 [one of the oddities of this cinema is the aspect ratio of the screens]. And I do not remember any warning about ‘mobile phones’ before the screening commenced. Sure enough, just as we started the climatic sequence one lit up in the row in front of me. Vampires in Byzantium have a really impressive nail on the index finger: I would have traded for one at that moment.

Posted in British Cinema, Horror, Irish Cinema | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

What Richard Did (Ireland 2012)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 2 February 2013

Richard (Jack Reyner) and Lara (Roísín Murphy). photo © Element Pictures

Richard (Jack Reynor) and Lara (Roísín Murphy). photo © Element Pictures

Obviously, I’m not going to tell you what Richard did, but actually the film is about what happened afterwards. Lenny Abrahamson’s film is set amongst the gilded youth of a South Dublin middle class community (or should that be upper-middle-class?). In the summer before he starts university, Richard seems to have it all. He’s been one of the stars of the rugby team at a prestigious school. His parents own a beach house in Co. Wicklow and he drives his own Golf. He’s the leader of his group and in some ways a ‘father figure’ at 18, looking out for younger guys (and girls) – he’s the kind of guy who can reassure other guys’ parents. If their son or daughter is with Richard, they’ll be fine. But when Richard meets Lara, he starts to change.

What Richard Did is a taut and suspenseful study of one young man’s summer and the effects of a moment of madness – which in itself is almost banal in its familiarity in a film involving 18 year-old boys. Far more sinister is what happens afterwards and the way in which privilege allows characters to erase certain kinds of social distress and to ‘move on’. On the other hand, human compassion probably means that we don’t want Richard to have to live with what he has done. We are more likely to be wishing for a way out, no matter how complicit that might make us feel. The film is very much about social class, but the early indications of the potential damage that class difference can create are presented in quite subtle ways. Later, when the boys of the rugby team ‘bond’ by singing the school song in a formal setting it is very disturbing. One review mentioned the omerta, the ‘code of silence’ in Southern Italy and that seems a good call, except that there is no ‘community’ as such to fall back on.

Lenny Abrahamson has already proved himself as adept in creating important fictions about different sectors of Irish society in Adam & Paul and Garage. What Richard Did is just as good as the earlier films. So far I’ve only come up with two slight problems. As in Garage, there is a narrative moment early in the film that you later realise has hinted at the narrative dénouement. This is a feature of Hitchcockian thrillers and the like and there is nothing wrong with it – in fact it can add immeasurably to the pleasure of unpicking the narrative to see how these ‘pre-markers’ fit in. But What Richard Did otherwise doesn’t seem that kind of film. Abrahamson’s skill seems to be in creating a narrative that is open to several different forms of interpretation rather than being some kind of puzzle game. My second complaint is purely practical. For the first twenty minutes or so I had great difficulty following the dialogue. Later in the narrative, the problem faded away. Perhaps my ear gradually tuned in? More likely, the language register changed. The screenwriter Malcolm Campbell attempted to go for the most authentic representation of the speech of these South Dublin teens after sitting in Starbucks with them and jotting down words and phrases during his research. As an Irish student blog puts it:

[The film's] only flaw on the international table is its huge dependency on south-sider and Dublin slang. It’s brilliant and fits the film, but it keeps it anchored to the island.

The film has been sold in Europe where it will be subtitled and I wish I’d had the benefit of subs. I understood the tone of the exchanges between characters in the early scenes but I missed the nuances and therefore I didn’t pick up on the development of Richard’s interest in Lara and its repercussions as quickly as I would have liked. But in a way, my struggle to hear the dialogue is in keeping with other aspects of Abrahamson’s approach. He gives very little background on Richard’s family and none on Lara’s or those of Richard’s other friends. We do get to meet Richard’s father played by Lars Mikkelsen, but the Danish side of the family isn’t explained as such (Richard’s family name is Karlsen). Mikkelsen’s father is a mysterious character and his performance adds to this in a pivotal scene in which he talks to his son in a way that we guess he hasn’t done before. I’ve seen one negative review of the Mikkelsen casting, but everyone else has praised it. His presence makes us think about Danish dramas and What Richard Did for me stands up to the best of that very strong tradition of Nordic film drama.

Lars Mikkelsen as Richard's father © Element Pictures

Lars Mikkelsen as Richard’s father photo © Element Pictures

The rest of the cast is excellent too. Three of the principals were themselves at school in Dublin when Abrahamson found them, with the boys coming from Belvedere College and Gonzaga College, Jesuit private schools that are two of the most highly-regarded in Ireland. But the film stands or falls on the casting and performance of Jack Reynor as Richard. He is astonishingly good in embodying the child-man who is forced to learn about himself so painfully. In certain close-ups the ‘fuzz’ of hair on puppy fat or the quizzical look makes him seem a younger teenager (see the image below). At other times his athletic body and broad shoulders make him a man. He performs his role to perfection – though the outstanding direction by Abrahamson and very effective cinematography (by David Grennan) must share some of the praise. Reynor has gone on to appear in other Irish films but he has also been snapped up by Michael Bay for Transformers 4. I desperately hope he survives that experience intact.

Richard's occasional younger face. © Element Pictures

Richard’s occasional younger face. © photo Element Pictures

What Richard Did is a ‘must-see’ film. As I left the screening one of my colleagues suggested that it was almost like an Eric Rohmer film. I think I contested this but the more I think about it, the sense of a ‘moral tale’ becomes more palpable. Perhaps it is also (as the director hints) in some ways allegorical about Ireland after the crash of 2008 with a moneyed class who have so far avoided the pain suffered by the majority?

Official website (with screening dates in the UK and Ireland)

Watch online via Artificial Eye/Curzon Cinemas in UK

Download from Virgin, HMV etc. in UK

Get the Press Pack here.

Hannah McGill’s review of the film in Sight & Sound (February 2013) makes several assertions that I’m not sure about (her summary is incorrect in at least one respect). She says that both Lara and Conor are Catholic and from a lower social class than Richard who she asserts is Protestant. In fact she says that Lara is Catholic ‘by heavy implication’. I must have missed something here. I didn’t see too many overt religious references. I assume that most of the characters are Catholic (and Richard’s school). Richard’s Danish father is more likely to be Lutheran but I took the Karlsens to be a largely secular family. Can somebody help me out? (There is also a useful background piece on the film in the same issue of Sight & Sound.)

Posted in Irish Cinema | Tagged: , , | 3 Comments »

Garage (Ireland 2007)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 25 January 2013

Pat Sortt as Josie in the bar with Carmel (Anne-Marie Duff in the orange top)

Pat Shortt as Josie in the bar with Carmel (Anne-Marie Duff in the orange top)

The recent release of What Richard Did by Lenny Abrahamson (reviewed here) has prompted me to go back to look at his earlier release from 2007. Both this and his 2004 first feature Adam and Paul were on my radar but I hadn’t found time to watch them. I’m glad now that I finally made the effort.

Garage is set in an unnamed small town in rural Ireland (it seems to have been shot in several different parts of the country, but mainly in the ‘West Midlands’) and its central character is Josie (Pat Shortt), a 40 year-old man who ‘runs’  filling station/garage situated outside a small town on the main road. In reality he is mainly the caretaker as business is slack and we never see Josie actually serve anyone. He’s employed by one of his old schoolmates who is now an entrepreneur in the town and he lives a fairly solitary life, bedding down in a backroom of the garage. Josie is considered as a little ‘slow’ by the local community – but he is cheerful and friendly and most of the locals don’t make fun of him or abuse his trust. The one lout who does bully him in the bar is the exception. Josie’s life begins to change when his boss decides that there is more passing trade and that the garage should stay open longer. Consequently  Josie is joined by an ‘assistant’, a shy and gawky 15 year-old, David. Well-played by Ryan O’Connor, David is a ‘blow-in’ to the small community and therefore initially an ‘outsider’ like Josie in social terms. He’s intelligent and sometimes a bit spiky – a ‘normal’ adolescent – but he gets on with Josie and they become friends. This friendship leads Josie into contacts with the other local teens and perhaps makes him reflect on his loneliness. Indirectly, David’s presence will lead to a series of tragic events.

My first thoughts about the film were that this was a low-budget European art film. There are no genre indications as such except towards the setting of the small town and its possibilities for drama. The town and the handful of local inhabitants are presented in a realist manner and my thoughts turned towards the Dardenne Brothers – but Garage doesn’t have quite the same intensity. A review I read mentioned Bresson. There is gentle humour in the initial representation of Josie’s mundane daily rituals and his contact with various characters. There is also a sense of the relative tranquility of rural Ireland and the potential for some kind of magic in the evening light – although the skies that Josie so enjoys seemed foreboding to me with their scudding clouds. Gradually however, we realise that happy though Josie appears to be in his own little world, he still seeks the possibility of intimacy in a relationship. Eventually too, we realise that Abrahamson is using Peter Robertson’s beautiful cinematography to compose shots very carefully and to look for various forms of symbolism in the mise en scène. The film is slow and nearly always calm. Pat Shortt’s performance is exceptional. He was first a comedian specialising in physical comedy and he uses the skills of a physical comedian to create a distinctive gait for his character, as well as an appropriate voice. His performance also has a resonance since he is well-known in Ireland for a comedy series set in the same kind of location as that in Garage.

I was a little surprised to read in the Press Pack this quote from Lenny Abrahamson:

“Josie is really a contemporary village idiot character but the Irish village doesn’t have any place for him anymore.”

I’m not sure I would use that term to describe a character in a contemporary drama. Of course, I know what he means but it does raise what might be the uncomfortable question at the centre of the film. If this is a realist depiction of Irish rural life, it suggests that there is no modern infrastructure to replace the traditional village community in what is usually seen as one of the more affluent and ‘developed’ societies in Europe. On the other hand, as events transpire, we might argue that the ‘regulation’ of contemporary society is what really makes Josie suffer – that and economic developments. The town’s residents who know Josie and tolerate him don’t really listen to him or help him with his problems. They are just glad that he seems happy. I was interested to read the range of IMDb comments. They include many Irish commentators, but also other Europeans. While most clearly liked the film and thought it praiseworthy, there are a couple of gainsayers, including one who argues that it isn’t a very good representation of a character with mild learning difficulties and another who argues that the residents are too morose and that the rural Irish are more likely to moan and get angry about their lot. These are fair points but as an arthouse film Garage works very well. The excellent production is enhanced by the presence of George Costigan in a small but vital role and Anne-Marie Duff as Carmel (who could probably act as a focus for another story). I can see why the film won one of the Cannes prizes and why Abrahamson and his collaborators are seen as one of Ireland’s most important filmmaking teams.

The final shot of this rather good trailer offers an example of the very effective lighting and composition:

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Shadow Dancer (UK-Ireland 2012)

Posted by Rona on 30 August 2012

Riseborough and Owen negotiate Friend or Foe in Shadow Dancer

A European co-production, Shadow Dancer appears to hark back to the kind of British political thriller of the 1970s or 1980s, both on television and in the cinema, which can maintain and transfer to its audience an air of paranoia and fear for the entire length of its running time.  That its story is set in Northern Ireland during The Troubles adds a further strong political resonance, particularly for British and Irish audiences, in its representation of its heroine Colette (Andrea Riseborough) and her relationship with the British government contact, Mac (Clive Owen).  This relationship – where he recruits her to spy for the Brits to avoid a devastating prison sentence which will separate her from her young son – is established very early in the film and this piece has no other spoilers (but some detail) about a thriller that does deliver on the narrative twists.

Adapted from his own novel by Tom Bradby (a British journalist who covered the conflict in Northern Ireland and wrote this first novel out of his experiences) It is set at the point at which the peace process of the early 1990s has begun and there is the beginnings of division in the Republican leadership which is likely to set the terrorist element adrift but the political machinations sit very firmly in the background.  This is a drama focussed on the personal dilemmas and struggles of Colette caught between two strong and uncompromising bullies – the IRA and the British Government.  Her fear centres not just on herself but on the safety of her son and it is the fear not just of a terrorist (the opening sequence shows her to be part of that ‘struggle’) but of ordinary people living out their lives within a situation where opposing political forces use their streets as a battleground.  This is not an ideological thriller, then, (although it does draw – for me – on the likes of Defence of the Realm or the television series Edge of Darkness for aspects of a conspiracy drama).  Instead, it’s a story where the most dramatic twists occur through the actions of its characters – actions which are rarely explained through the dialogue but make complete sense to you in the audience.

This is perhaps partly if you are British or Irish and are old enough to remember the context and the cross-currents of the time – but even if you don’t, it really works because this a film that is so impressive in its use of visual storytelling.  The dialogue is exceptionally spare – there is hardly any for much of the opening 15-20 (ish) minutes – introducing the protagonist and her situation.  It tends to the ‘wordless’ throughout – suggesting relationships and ideas through its narrative structure and through the physical performance of its actors.  There is a thoughtful visual repeat which (wordlessly) reinforces the parallels of the Brits and the IRA’s treatment of Colette;  there are odd gestures which encapsulate the attitude of a particular character (I thought Gillian Anderson as Mac’s boss made subtle use of very limited screen time here in this.  Clive Owen plays effectively against his established suave persona without overstating it physically). Of the family, Riseborough is consummate (something you almost begin to expect from her having seen her previous work on television and film – such as The Devil’s Whore on Channel 4 (which is still available through their on-demand service in the UK) and The Long Walk to Finchley as Margaret Thatcher as well as lead film turns in Brighton Rock and part of the ensemble in Made in Dagenham. The camera in this film is not afraid of close-up – and Riseborough knows how to use it because she can entirely inhabit the territory of that character. Aiden Gillen fleshes out a typical activist, hothead stereotype with limited time and Domhnall Gleeson (a rising star – who has just shot a Richard Curtis film and part of the next big Brit-flick in Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina) entirely conveys a youthful, gauche, loving brother who is also an entirely committed terrorist.

Whilst these performances are vital, the film has an understated aesthetic which might hide its incredibly sophisticated – expressionistic use – of production design. The typical browns and sepias of smoke-filled rooms set the historical era of the early 1990s, the drab colours characterise homes that (given the poverty induced by constant, drip-drip conflict) have hardly moved on since the 1970s. (Here, the film made a strong social point without ever drawing it to attention in the script  through the wood-pannelled decor).  Characters are dressed to fit emotional standing and mood.  Framings in close-up have an unsettling (fearful) angle to emphasise effectively the tension of the narrative – nothing has been left to chance to construct a visual look that feels entirely unforced and natural. Visual edits during a funeral scene lay out the distinctions in attitudes in this community – as well as its seething anger at injustice – which informs our understanding of characters later.  Fundamentalism – our popular understanding of it now – haunts aspects of this film. To begin the film on a London tube is resonant of more recent events (certainly for a British audience) and sparks us into questioning  what drives people to commit atrocities – acts which viewed from outside can seem simply cold and contrived and without a human base. Anger is at the heart of this film – what it drives people to do, how it shapes them – with more sympathy and understanding of that emotion than that statement might imply.

Its director, James Marsh, was the Oscar-winning director of Man on Wire the documentary which told the story of Philippe Petit who walked across a tightrope suspended between the World Trade Centre twin towers in 1974. Nothing really joins these two British-produced films by the same director (who has directed both narrative and documentary work before), who also made another historically retrospective documentary in Project Nim, except this extraordinary ability to tell a story that could be about events and really ends up being about the people involved in them. Looking at it simply as a film (and not a politically or culturally charged film) its ability to blend aspects of performance, production design and cinematography reminds me of  Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy from last year.  That film evoked visually the seedy corridors of power to evoke emotionally the pervading distrust of the Cold War spy era within the British establishment itself. This film has a greater degree of understatement in its visual construction which I hope will not mean it is overlooked during awards – simply because this kind of British film-making deserves recognition.

Posted in British Cinema, Irish Cinema | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

BIFF 2012 #7: Albert Nobbs (Ireland/UK/Fra 2011)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 24 April 2012

Glenn Close as Albert Nobbs and Mia Wasikowska as Helen Dawes

I enjoyed Albert Nobbs. I’m not sure what I expected, but overall the film works well. It’s an oddity in the sense that it was shown in North American festivals last year in time for Oscar nominations for both Glenn Close and Janet McTeer and subsequently given a limited release in the US and Canada. Yet it has had to wait until April 27th 2012 for a UK and Ireland release. The film seems to have had some negative reviews in the US and while I don’t agree with the tone of those reviews, some of them do hone in on a central problem that I recognise.

Albert Nobbs is based on a short story by the Irish writer George Moore (1852-1933), perhaps best known for Esther Waters, his 1894 novel which became a British film in 1948. A realist writer, compared on Wikipedia with Émile Zola, Moore was a genuine internationalist writer having lived in Paris and London and is said to have influenced Joyce. The story of Albert Nobbs is set in Dublin at the end of the 19th century but was written in 1917-18. Albert is revealed to us a little way into the film as a woman who has ‘passed’ for a man in order to achieve the security and relative prosperity associated with being a waiter/butler in a small hotel in Dublin catering for a range of middle-class and upper middle-class customers. One night Albert is ‘found out’ through a chance encounter with a painter and decorator who is also ‘passing’, but who has somehow managed to have a fuller and richer life than Albert who is, quite literally, ‘buttoned up’. Herein lies the driving force of the narrative as Albert aspires to be ‘free’ in some way.

The film has been a pet project of Glenn Close since she first played the role on stage in 1982. After a one failed production (when financing was lost) to be directed by Istvan Szabo, Close collaborated with the novelist John Banville and a new director Rodrigo García, a very experienced Latin American filmmaker with many well-known US TV series in his credits. The film has a starry cast including the very talented Mia Wasikowska and a host of Irish and British stalwarts. It looks terrific and it doesn’t aspire, as I feared it might, to the kind of Downton Abbey/Upstairs Downstairs social class interplay. This is primarily a ‘downstairs’/’backstairs’ drama. I’m sorry to say that the problem is Ms Close, or rather the make-up and costume design that is deemed suitable to make her into Albert. She does look odd, with a rigid face in which seemingly only the eyes move. Dressed formally to ‘walk out’ around Dublin with a bowler perched on her head she seems like an escapee from Woody Allen’s Sleepers or a new android that might appear in Dr Who. All this is thrown into relief by Janet McTeer as ‘Hubert Page’ who makes a completely convincing man (and woman, as one startling scene reveals). None of this is meant as a criticism of Glenn Close’s acting skills as I’m a great admirer. I just think the casting is wrong.

It would be a shame if any worries about the central role meant that audiences missed the other pleasures that the film has to offer. ‘Passing’ narratives like this have a long history and enable a discourse about gender representations from a different angle. For instance, in this narrative it’s instructive to consider all the women in the hotel and how their behaviour is altered by social class and codes of propriety. This being Ireland in 1899 religious prohibitions are also important. But male homosexuality seems less of an issue. I’d like to see the film again in order to explore these issues in more detail. I’m also tempted now to what I think was a wholly successful ‘passing’ narrative – Maggie Greenwald’s The Ballad of Little Jo (US 1993).

Here’s the US trailer:

Posted in Festivals and Conferences, Irish Cinema | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »


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