Glassland review: a suitably muddy enigma
Thoughtful study of a family struggling with alcoholism is harrowing but ultimately uplifting
Jack Reynor: “an ever more striking screen presence”.
Film Title: Glassland
Director: Gerard Barrett
Starring: Jack Reynor, Will Poulter, Michael Smiley, Toni Collette, Harry Nagle
Running Time: 93 min
This is only Gerard Barrett’s second feature, but we already get a sense that the young Kerryman is attempting to engage with “the state of the nation”. The singular Pilgrim Hill, released to acclaim in 2013, addressed economic hardship in rural Ireland. Glassland, a winner at the Galway Film Fleadh and Sundance, goes among the socially excluded in contemporary Tallaght. It’s not altogether a happy story. Indeed, man hands misery onto man in ways that recall Philip Larkin’s metaphorical deepening coastal shelf. There is, however, such original thinking going on that the picture ultimately becomes an uplifting experience.
Glassland hangs around the relationship between John (Jack Reynor), a taxi driver, and Jean ( Toni Collette), his hopelessly alcoholic mother. In an early scene, the young man prowls about the kitchen trying to find milk (which must be watered) and a spoon (plucked from the dirty sink). Mum is in a coma and, after a rush to hospital, he learns that she will need a liver transplant. All this happens with the minimum of dialogue. Barrett is nothing if not economical.
There’s a classic movie-movie scenario in there. (Without wishing to lower the tone, we note the recent Dumb and Dumber To hung around the same premise and we move swiftly on.) But Glassland doesn’t slip into easy narrative clichés; if anything, in its later stages, the film becomes a little too oblique in its storytelling. The picture is dedicated to teasing out character through confrontation and catharsis.
Further pressures are laid on John’s shoulders. It transpires that his younger brother (Harry Nagle), who has Down Syndrome, has been placed in a care facility and is rarely visited by their mother. His condition may be either the reason or the mere excuse for Jean’s drinking.
Something a little like comic relief is provided by the always-welcome Will Poulter as John’s best mate, Shane. The lad isn’t in a much happier situation than John – he has a flinty relationship with his mother and is on the brink of unwanted responsibility – but Poulter brings a stunned vacancy to the character that proves hilariously endearing.
Collette does equally strong work with a personality that is shrouded in addiction to the point of total concealment. An actor who is never afraid of spilling the emotional guts, she is frighteningly convincing in her screaming torment, but – and this is as it should be – only fragments of her original damaged personality are allowed to show themselves.
Reynor has the responsibility of making sense of the relationship through glance, gesture and expression. In the three years since What Richard Did, the actor has developed an ever more striking screen presence. Through coiled tension, hooded frustration and, eventually, voluble remonstrating, he gets across a terrible truth about addiction: those around the user suffer the most and with the least justification.
Shot on a modest budget, the film is a minor technical marvel. Piers McGrail’s smoky cinematography makes something oddly beautiful of the rundown vistas. The gifted editor Nathan Nugent – who also worked on Frank and Sensation – overlaps the shots with urgent restraint (if that oxymoron can be allowed).
As the film has travelled the world, the only significant complaints have concerned a deliberately obscure subplot that involves Jack ferrying Chinese prostitutes. His connections in that area seem to open up opportunities to help his mother (can our guess be regarded as a spoiler?), but those strands are never neatly knotted together. That is, perhaps, as it should be. This is a keenly thought-out film about unintentional emotional abuse. It is also a muddy enigma. The two things can go together.