Spooky kids and serious vampires

Wed, Feb 25, 2009, 00:00

A highlight of this year’s Jameson Dublin International Film Festival turned out to be a heavy metal rock concert, no less, writes DONALD CLARKE.

LET’S GET THE simple bit out of the way first. Liam Neeson was, it is true, in amiable form at his public interview on Saturday, and it was nice to see George Morrison, director of Mise Éire, receive his Volta award for career achievement. It was a fantastic idea to select Last Tango in Paris – a film never previously certified in this country – for the Film Classifier for a Day Event. (The butter industry will be disappointed to hear that John Kelleher, Director of Film Classification, and his guests decided the film still deserves a belated 18 cert.)

All that noted, the highlight of this year’s excellent Jameson Dublin International Film Festival (JDIFF) was, surely, the performance by Anvil – Canada’s loudest band – after a screening of the imaginatively titled Anvil! The Story of Anvil. There may have been better films at JDIFF than Sacha Gervasi’s documentary (though not many), but the sight of these old chums polishing off their axes offered a combination of poignancy and volume rarely seen at prestigious film festivals. It came as no surprise when Anvil! won the Audience Prize, voted best film by audiences at the festival.

When the noise died down and the dry ice drifted out of the auditorium, a bewildering array of spooky youths emerged from the underworld to scowl at innocent patrons.

In Ashling Walsh’s The Daisy Chain, young Mhairi Anderson, playing an autistic kid suspected of being a changeling, made life difficult for Samantha Morton and Steven Mackintosh. In Agnès Merlet’s Dorothy Mills, an ashen teenager, played quite brilliantly by Jenn Murray, scared another gang of gap-toothed yokels on a remote Irish island. Elsewhere, among the drab streets of 1970s Sweden, a shy young boy fell in love with an ashen vampire child in Let the Right One In.

What can the recurrence of this theme mean? Walsh’s follow-up to Song for a Raggy Boywas rich in atmosphere and good ideas, but a tad lacking in resolution. Two solutions to the central mystery offer themselves at the close: one is mildly offensive, the other more than a little banal. Still, the film confirmed Walsh’s storytelling gifts and provided the excellent cast with an array of meaty, chewable parts.

IN CONTRAST TO The Daisy Chain, which danced through several genres, Dorothy Millsproved to be a bracingly broad, crone-cackling horror flick of the old school. Featuring a final twist so thumpingly outrageous you either burst into applause or groan yourself into an outraged stupor, the picture could easily have emerged from a second-tier British horror studio such as Tigon during the Harold Wilson era.

Only you can decide whether that counts as a recommendation.

Let the Right One In, however, turned out to be a serious contender for the finest film of the festival. Working from a script by John Ajvide Lindqvist, author of the source novel, director Tomas Alfredson showed Generation Buffy that the vampire genre can still be successfully approached with a serious mind.

The picture follows a young boy as he makes friends with a pale, reserved girl and, after several blood-drained corpses are located in the area, comes to terms with her true nature. Such stories have often contained metaphors for burgeoning sexuality, but few previous films have used horror so effectively to convey the isolation that often accompanies adolescence. An American remake from the bloke behind Cloverfieldis on the way. Sigh!

If that fine Anvil film was a little too clamorous for your taste then you might have appreciated a glance at Alan Gilsenan’s first-class The Yellow Bittern: The Life and Times of Liam Clancy. Before the screening took place, Gilsenan, now a veteran of the Irish documentary scene, took the stage to argue that the Clancy Brothers – wearers of Aran jumpers and singers of boozy ballads – had been somewhat patronised by the Irish public. His film, which was blissfully free of Bono’s talking head, certainly made a good case for Liam as a storyteller of genius, and nobody could doubt the strength of his voice. Still, despite the brothers’ apprenticeship alongside Bob Dylan in Greenwich Village, the costumes and attitudes do still reek of tourist cabarets and Aer Lingus in-flight entertainment. None of which is to detract from Gilsenan’s achievement in offering such a fleshy portrait of such a fascinating figure.

Other documentaries worth catching included Tina Mascara and Guido Santi’s Chris & Don: A Love Story, a touching study of the relationship between writer Christopher Isherwood and the (still lively) artist Don Bachardy, and, most notably, Werner Herzog’s characteristically eccentric Encounters at the End of the World. The German director is one of the few survivors of a great generation in his country’s cinema – Volker Schlöndorff is missing, Rainer Werner Fassbinder is dead, Wim Wenders has lost it – to thrive in the new century.

In recent years, Herzog has focused most of his attention on documentaries, and the new film bears favourable comparison with recent acclaimed efforts such as Grizzly Man. Werner’s ostensible object was to make a study of the waters beneath the Antarctic ice, but, as is often the case with this director’s documentaries, the real subject turned out to be Werner Herzog himself. “I told the producers this would not be a film about fluffy penguins,” he growls before ranting about “New Age ideologues” and “whale huggers”. Great stuff.

A very different kind of grimness manifested itself in Michael Winterbottom’s Genova. The hitherto dizzyingly prolific director has slowed down in recent years and his latest picture showed evidence of an artist breathing more carefully. Colin Firth, a guest at JDIFF, plays the father of two children who, following the death of his wife, relocates the family to a breathtakingly gorgeous Genoa. Making magnificent use of his location, Winterbottom, director of such varied fare as 9 Songsand A Mighty Heart, nods towards Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventuraand Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Nowas he allows smatterings of the supernatural into a distinctly unsettling analysis of the disrupting power of grief.

LOSS AND GRIEVING were also at the heart of the starriest Irish screening of the festival. Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel, the man behind Downfall, Five Minutes of Heavenfeatured James Nesbitt as the brother of a man murdered in the Northern Irish Troubles who is asked by the producers of a TV programme to shake hands with the newly reformed killer. Hirschbiegel, Nesbitt and Liam Neeson, who plays the sleekly dressed former UVF man, all turned up at the screening.

The film’s screenwriter Guy Hibbert, also writer of Omagh, was inspired by a real-life incident, and the opening sections – the murder, Nesbitt’s anguish as he makes his way to the TV recording – are fired with awful tension and an understanding of the conflicting emotions such a meeting would engender. The final act is, perhaps, a tad melodramatic, but this is an impressively acted piece that leaves the viewer feeling properly sombre. Hibbert’s film, which won the World Cinema Directing Award and World Cinema Screenwriting Award at the recent Sundance Film Festival, opens here on Friday.

Nesbitt was back on screen in another of the festival’s Irish screenings. Glenn Leyburn and Lisa Barros D’Sa’s Cherrybomb attemptedto do for Northern Irish youth culture what Trainspottingdid for Edinburgh’s dissolute outsiders. The results were decidedly mixed. Robert Sheehan (wild, charming) and Rupert Grint (shrinking violet) play two teenagers seeking to savour the weeks that follow their final exams. While they booze, puff and shag their way about the locale, Nesbitt tries to protect his daughter from their roving eyes and hands.

The film is a bit chaotic and fails to accommodate a wild shift in tone during its last 10 minutes, but it does offer a fresh perspective on Belfast, and Grint’s sex scene has driven Harry Potter fans into ecstasies. Within minutes of the film ending, websites devoted to Grint, who plays Ron Weasley in the franchise, were carrying reports of Sheehan’s appearance at Cineworld. By the time you finish this article, whinges about my criticism of the film will, no doubt, have appeared on the same site.

Though Five Minutes of Heavenand Cherrybombhad their virtues, the most impressive Irish film at this year’s event was, surely, Tomm Moore’s weird, unclassifiable The Secret of Kells. The animated feature from Kilkenny-based Cartoon Saloon, which constructs a new myth around the creation of the Book of Kells, has been laboured over with a degree of dedication comparable to that displayed by those ninth century monks (though with more breaks for video games).

Eschewing Christian iconography for nods towards Celtic myth, the filmmakers never employ a lazy or obvious image when they can construct something odd, expressionistic or mind-bending.

Before The Secret of Kellsclosed the festival, a packed Savoy 1 mulled over the annual ritual that is the surprise film. Many punters who had failed to notice that Watchmenwas nearly three hours long felt that Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Alan Moore’s great graphic novel was the favourite. Others suggested that Adventureland, The Boat that Rockedor The Damned Unitedmight be likely picks. As it happened, Grainne Humphreys, the festival director, bamboozled the tipsters for the second year running by picking the Steve Coogan comedy Hamlet 2.

The film ends with Coogan leading a cast of dozens in a bizarre sequel to Hamletthat takes in time travel, gay choirs and a newly risen Jesus. It was strange, but not quite as strange as encountering an actual heavy metal band in the auditorium.

From young blood to old metal: The Festival films that rocked the critics

The Jameson Dublin International Film Festival has, to this point, been cautious about sanctioning official prizes. But the organisers were, this year, happy to host an event during which the Dublin Film Critics Circle (DFCC) announced their highlights of the jamboree.

This writer joined John Maguire ( Sunday Business Post), George Byrne ( Evening Herald), Paul Lynch ( Sunday Tribune) and DFCC president Tara Brady ( Hot Press) for a conversation hosted by RTÉ’s Dave Fanning in the Irish Film Institute on Friday afternoon.

Let the Right One In, Tomas Alfredson’s singular tale of the macabre, was named best film, and The Secret of Kells, a lavish Irish animation, took the best Irish film prize. Anvil! The Story of Anvilran away with the best documentary gong, and Paulo Sorentino won best director for Il Divo, his surreal study of Italian prime minister Giulio Andreotti. The panel enjoyed Toni Servillo’s lead performance in Sorentino’s film, but awarded the best actor prize to Tom Hardy for his blood-curdling turn in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Bronson. Transforming himself from a wiry geezer to a monstrous, extravagantly moustachioed hulk, Hardy is so convincing as Charley Bronson – Britain’s most violent convict – that you seem to feel spittle spraying your face as you watch the film.