Arracht: A powerful Irish film claims its place in a great tradition

Review: Its delayed release cannot dull the power of Tom Sullivan’s excellent Famine drama

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Director: Tom Sullivan
Cert: 12A
Genre: Drama
Starring: Donall O Healai, Saise Ni Chuinn, Dara Devaney, Michael McElhatton, Peter Coonan, Eoin O’Dubhghall
Running Time: 1 hr 30 mins

It has been nearly two years since Tom Sullivan’s excellent Famine drama premiered to raves in Estonia. It is one year since it was selected as the Irish entry for the best-international-film Oscar (and, according to some trade papers, came close to the longlist).

But the intervening period has done nothing to dull the power of a film that feels timeless. There is much in Arracht about the casual outrages of 19th-century imperialism. There is a much about the eternal sorrows of the human condition.

The Irish-language drama stars Dónall Ó Héalai – measuring sensitivity against rugged determination – as Colman Sharkey, a struggling fisherman who, though not fond of the booze himself, does a sideline in the area's best poitín. As the film begins we are made aware that the blight is already making its poisonous way across the west. Rents are rising. The authorities are not sympathetic.

A grim situation becomes worse when Colman and his unreliable companion, Patsy (Dara Devaney), a former soldier, make their way to the house of the landlord. If you guessed he is played by Michael McElhatton that is only because that actor – also seen in this week's The Last Duel – does this class of sinister better than anyone else in the business.


Following a violent conflagration, we jump forward two years to find Colman making do alone in a maritime cave.

The critic’s endless urge to identify every film as a western will find some encouragement in an early showdown and a central conflagration that suggest a considerably less jokey take on Django Unchained. There are certainly shades of horror in Colman’s engagement with an evil that, alas, was once all too real.

Arracht sits, however, somewhat outside genre. Featuring beautifully balanced compositions by the cinematographer Kate McCullough – putting shape on chaos – the picture ends as a ghastly fable detailing the horrors of survival.

Though less immediately accessible than the domestic hit Black 47, it beds deeper in the psyche. The damp discomforts of a life on the edge of destruction feel uncomfortably vivid. The near mythical quality of the closing images emphasise its place in a great tradition.

A singular way of welcoming the coming winter. Incredibly, an American remake is in the offing.

Opens on Friday, October 15th

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist