Ireland's opening skirmishes at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah have proved hugely successful. Both Whit Stillman's Love & Friendship, produced in Ireland by Blinder Films, and John Carney's Sing Street, a rock musical set in 1980s Dublin, have received strong reviews and clamourous ovations. Initial word on Rebecca Daly's Mammal has also been strong. Those films are among an unprecedented seven domestic features premiering at the hugely influential independent snowy jamboree.
Love & Friendship stars Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny in an adaptation of Jane Austen's early novel Lady Susan. Stillman, the US director of cerebral comedies such as Metropolitan and The Last Days of Disco, has long travelled in the same waters as the novelist and most critics found the pairing a happy match. "Shot entirely in Ireland, mostly in 18th-century great houses, Love & Friendship is nicely decked out on a budget," Todd McCarthy wrote in the Hollywood Reporter. "Cheeky in its approach as well as spirited and good-natured, this enterprising adaptation of the author's relatively unfamiliar early novella Lady Susan remains buoyant through most of its short running time."
Variety was more effusive still. Justin Chang wrote in that industry bible: "While Love & Friendship hums along so mellifluously that you could easily enjoy it with your eyes closed (especially with the tuneful accompaniment of Benjamin Esdraffo's piano-and-strings score), it's really best not to, given the high level of visual craft on display." There were further raves from the Guardian and the New York Post.
Members of the cast were on hand to deliver a few songs following the standing ovation for Carney's Sing Street. Set to open the Audi Dublin International Film Festival next month, the picture sounds very much like a continuation from the same director's Once and Begin Again. Rising newcomer Ferdia Walsh-Peelo stars as Conor, a middle-class kid – loosely based on the director – who, after being sent to a tough school, finds release through his participation in a rock band. The audience reaction could scarcely have been more positive with a torrent of hysterical tweets emerging from the auditorium. "Had a huge smile on my face while watching Sing Street," Steven Weintraub of Collider commented. "Audience absolutely loved it. HUGE crowd pleaser."
The formal reviews were equally effusive. Jordan Hoffman, writing in the Guardian, felt it was "pretty terrific . . . It's been a long time since I've seen a Sundance premiere's fade to black bring on such rousing cheers. Conor's music is a call to dive headlong into adventure, and the big finish is [a] cymbal-crashing crowdpleaser."
Variety also raved. "No 21st-century filmmaker has a more intuitive understanding of movie-musical construction than Irishman John Carney, " Guy Lodge wrote.
The experience will bring back fond memories for Carney. It was at Sundance in 2007 that Once began its triumphant journey to an Oscar for best original song. "All our careers were enhanced by Sundance," he told The Irish Times. "It was overshadowed by winning the Oscar for best song. But it was at Sundance that it all began. I couldn't overestimate the significance of that festival."
Rebecca Daly's Mammal, produced by Fastnet Films, stars Rachel Griffiths as a grieving mother who takes pity on a homeless teenager (Barry Keoghan) in contemporary Dublin. Allan Hunter in Screen Daily was keen on both actors. "The raw vulnerability of their performances creates a rock solid centre to this delicately handled immersion in love and grief," he wrote. Hunter described Mammal as "a tale that edges towards Greek tragedy in its treatment of the fragile, twisted bond between mothers and sons".
In 2015, John Crowley's Brooklyn premiered at the event and began an unstoppable journey to three major Oscar nominations. The positive reception at this year's festival adds further gloss to a golden period for Irish film. Brooklyn competes alongside Room for the prizes that matter next month. Is it too early to be thinking about the 2017 Oscars? Almost certainly. But still . . .