Review: Pilgrim Hill

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Director: Gerard Barrett
Cert: 12A
Genre: Drama
Starring: Joe Mullins, Muiris Crowley, Keith Byrne, Kevin McCormack
Running Time: 1 hr 25 mins

A myth still permeates that Irish cinema is a little too concerned with the rural and the miserable. Quite the opposite is now the case. We don’t see nearly enough about disenfranchised agricultural communities on our screens.

The extraordinary debut feature from young Gerard Barrett, a determined Kerryman, sets the record straight in stirring style. Shot in unhurried, cautious fashion – making occasional gestures to the mock documentary genre – Pilgrim Hill offers a quietly devastating portrait of Jimmy Walsh (Joe Mullins), a bachelor farmer eking out his life in a lonely farm on a windy outcrop. He spends his days taking care of the cattle and tending to the needs of his ailing, unseen father. At night, he allows himself the occasional pint at a distant pub.

There are shades of the great French documentary Modern Life, a study of farmers in the Cévennes, in the sequences where Jimmy talks directly to the camera. But the film gets at a very Irish class of misery: the wretchedness of being stranded with the previous generation while one's contemporaries surge into the modern world.

None of this sociological observation would matter if Pilgrim Hill lacked cinematic juice. As it happens, Ian D Murphy's cinematography has a limpidity that soaks up the damp landscapes to beautiful and mournful effect.


Barrett choreographs the slow march towards an expected catastrophe with rhythms that are positively Russian in their leisurely grace. The decision to hold back on non-diegetic music until the final searing denouement speaks of an impressive degree of maturity (and restraint) from a young film-maker.

Barrett is also to be congratulated for drawing such a disciplined performance from his lead. A farmer and occasional amateur actor, Mullins has a steadiness and commitment that cannot be easily faked. But it takes real talent to make effective use of such authenticity. The moment where Jimmy speculates about dying and meeting the “person he could have been” fairly takes the breath away.

Don't let Pilgrim Hill pass you by.

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

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