His & Hers

 

His & Hers Directed by Ken Wardrop G Cert lim release, 80 min

Some 70 Irish women talk – and laugh and coo – about the men in their lives in this beguiling documentary from the midlands, writes DONALD CLARKE

RARELY HAVE the odd and the ordinary combined to such beguiling effect. Winner of a small hatful of prizes over the last year, Ken Wardrop’s debut feature proudly defies categorisation.

Comprising a large number of conversations with ordinary (but remarkable) Irish women, His & Herscertainly satisfies most lucid definitions of a documentary. Listen closely and you will, however, detect a meta-narrative emerging from the cluster of monologues.

Each woman describes her own circumstances, but she also unconsciously contributes to the portrait of a composite personality. Wardrop admits that he intended the film as a tribute to his mother, but an engaging class of covert fiction is also under way.

At any rate, the film, made for peanuts under the Irish Film Board’s Catalyst Scheme, could comfortably be filed in the drawer marked “avant garde”. A compilation of chatting ladies is, after all, not the sort of thing you expect to encounter in your average Enoromoplex.

Well, maybe not. But Wardrop – already acclaimed for a series of touching shorts – has composed such an easily digestible entertainment that it positively demands space in the mainstream. No other film this season has told such a strong story (such strong stories?) with such touching conviction.

His & Hersmust have been as hard to make as it is easy to summarise: about 70 women, all from the Irish midlands, arranged in ascending order of age, tell stories about the men in their lives.

Shot in slightly grainy, attractively washed-out colours by Kate McCullough and Michael Lavelle (winners of an award at the Sundance Film Festival), the participants begin by discussing dads, go on to ponder boyfriends, and then move on to sons and husbands. We begin with a baby; we end with an elderly lady philosophically contemplating decline.

As the film progresses, the various unseen men appear to coalesce into a portrait of one decent, slightly useless but hopelessly lovable individual. He makes a nice curry, but he doesn’t do such a good job with the washing-up. When he was a child he had ambitions to move into law enforcement, but his mother never quite bought it. “A guard? A bank robber, more like,” she laughs.

For all the joshing, however, the shared affection between man and woman is never in doubt. Among the most moving of many touching moments comes when a young contributor discusses her boyfriend (and all boyfriends). “It’s like they have your heart in their hands and they can do what they like with it,” she says.

By this stage, Wardrop has established such a warm ambience that the viewer feels confident the clutched heart will be treasured rather than crushed.

Indeed, the few criticisms that have come the way of His & Hershave focused on its apparent cosy view of the chosen milieu. Occasional terrible things happen to the women – the sections on illness and widowhood truly wrench the heartstrings – but this remains a safe environment, largely untouched by violence, stress or marital disharmony.

More curiously, the women rarely convey any sense of their lives outside the home. Where are the female doctors, accountants, firefighters and tree surgeons of the midlands?

Well, His & Hersdoes not claim to offer any sort of overview of women’s lives in contemporary Ireland. Wardrop’s most impressive achievement is, in fact, to take so many disparate stories (the firefighters may be here, but they don’t talk about fighting fires) and use them to investigate one particular life: a wife and mother in the mould of Mrs Wardrop. His & Hersis, aside from being a very touching film, an enormously impressive formal achievement.

Women’s homes may (for all I know) look quite similar in the midlands, but it takes skill to make every kitchen seem like it abuts the same well-tended, tidily painted corridor.

The result is a near-perfect act of cinematic sleight of hand: a beautiful tale told apparently by accident. No wonder His & Hersis the most lauded Irish film since Hunger.