Hole in the Head: An imaginative and infuriating cut from the edge of Irish cinema

Film review: Experimentalist film-maker Dean Kavanagh takes an oblique approach to a family mystery

Hole in the Head
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Director: Dean Kavanagh
Cert: None
Starring: John Curran, James Devereaux, Lynette Callaghan
Running Time: 1 hr 35 mins

There are the makings of a more conventional drama at the heart of this imaginative, busy, funny, occasionally infuriating (I’m betting the film-makers won’t take that adjective as negative criticism) puzzle piece from long-time experimentalist Dean Kavanagh. The picture concerns a young man trying to piece together the disappearance of his parents from the family pile some 25 years previously. There was money in the dynasty. There are hints of affairs. There are rumours of abuse. One can imagine Ruth Rendell pulling off a shocking revelation in the last few pages (and Claude Chabrol or Pedro Almodóvar then translating that on to the screen).

Kavanagh, a Wicklow man who has been developing his own low-budget projects for a decade and a half, takes an altogether more oblique approach. John Curran is impassive as the near-mute John Kline jnr. A projectionist and amateur film-maker, he hires two actors (Lynette Callaghan and James Devereaux) to play his parents as he restages a series of home movies. Sometimes we seem to be watching Kline’s film within a film. Sometimes out-takes. Sometimes we sit back farther — when the narrator appears on screen, for instance — to take a seat in the outermost narrative ring.

To use one of those frightful middlebrow qualifications, the film “may not be for everyone”

If that all sounds a bid forbidding, be aware that Kavanagh here dabbles (most of the time, anyway) in the more accessible school of self-consciousness attended by the likes of Peter Strickland. The word “hauntology” appears in the notes and those who enjoy listening to the spooky music from the Ghost Box label will appreciate the odd noises echoing around dimly lit corners.

Much fun is had with lovingly faked archival records. We hear scratchy cassette recordings play as the camera scrolls through old photographs. Later, the cast look to be cracking up as, isolated in gothic decay, they suspect Kline of unethical manipulation. Callaghan (flinty) and Devereaux (grand), both very good, relish the opportunity to strain against two sets of imagined chains. Filmed in lockdown, Hole in the Head is among the few such releases to make an unquestioned virtue of the attendant claustrophobia.


To use one of those frightful middlebrow qualifications, the film “may not be for everyone”. Some of Kline’s more puzzling rural adventures will strain the patience of the less adventurous. But the film-makers’ invention and intelligence is never in doubt. Celebrate the continuing mainstream success of Irish film. Celebrate also those working at the edges.

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

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