God’s Creatures, a singular new Irish film starring Paul Mescal and Emily Watson, has premiered to warm applause in the Directors’ Fortnight strand at the Cannes film festival.
Mescal stars as a wanderer who returns to a remote fishing village and, following a violent incident, inveigles his mother into lying on his behalf to the authorities. Watson, veteran English Oscar nominee, gives a powerful performance as the conflicted mother. Mescal, who has been wildly busy since breaking through with Normal People in 2020, confirms an ability to work enigmatic smiles in with dangerous charm.
A terse drama shot on film in Teelin, Co Donegal, God’s Creatures plays with the sort of folk drama that Federico García Lorca brought to sunnier climes in the pre-war years. Fodhla Cronin O’Reilly, the Bafta-nominated producer of Lady Macbeth, drew on her upbringing in Kerry when developing the story.
Just because of how specific it is I feel it does have universal resonance – especially in regards to the psychology of the characters
“I am from a small fishing village in Ireland,” she told The Irish Times. “It is very personal material. So I had the world and all the characters and whatnot.”
She thought of her friend Shane Crowley as a potential screenwriter. “He had never read a screenplay, never mind write one and I was just learning how to develop films. So it was a real learning curve for both of us. He flew to London. We spent a couple of weeks in my apartment during a sweltering heatwave. We’ve been plugging away at the script ever since.”
They ended up with a film that could hardly look less like something conceived in a heatwave. The rain batters the characters as they plough through the surf for oysters. The cyclones suggest wild emotions concealed beneath unflinching carapaces. Yet God’s Creatures was directed by two Americans: Anna Rose Holmer and Saela Davis.
“Well, our story is super specific for sure,” Cronin O’Reilly says. “But just because of how specific it is I feel it does have universal resonance – especially in regards to the psychology of the characters. They connected with that immediately. There’s no question about their connection to the material.”
The project is a co-production between Screen Ireland, the BBC and the hugely respected US independent studio A24. That last company has racked up 25 Academy Award nominations over the years and, in 2017, won best picture for Moonlight. There is no better place to launch such a project than Directors’ Fortnight. Set up in 1969 as a more radical response to the student revolts that closed down Cannes a year earlier, the semi-official strand, which plays a few hundred metres away from the Palais des Festivals, has launched the careers of such greats as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Spike Lee. Recent Oscar nominees such as Whiplash and The Florida Project made their debuts there.
We have been describing Directors' Fortnight as the Brooklyn and the main competition as Manhattan
“Well, when I think of Directors’ Fortnight I think of original daring voices,” Cronin O’Reilly says. “And trying to tell stories that aren’t broad. Directors’ Fortnight is open to experimentation – not that the other categories aren’t. Some of our team is from New York. We have been describing Directors’ Fortnight as the Brooklyn and the main competition as Manhattan.”
The festival confirms that Mescal is currently unstoppable. A few weeks after being photographed at the Met Gala, he turns up in two films at Cannes. Charlotte Wells’s Aftersun, starring Mescal as a father adrift with his daughter on a holiday in Turkey, has its first screening in the Critics’ Week strand on Saturday. Jessie Buckley, another Irish star, will be seen opposite multiple incarnations of Rory Kinnear in Alex Garland’s Men, which is getting a special screening at Directors’ Fortnight.
The festival continues until May 28th. Films by such respected directors as David Cronenberg, Claire Denis and the Dardenne brothers compete for the Palme d’Or, the biggest prize on the festival circuit, in the Official Competition. Following an impressive return to action last year – an event that incorporated Covid testing for all attendees – relative normality has returned to the jammed streets on the Riviera.