Song of Granite review: An intoxicatingly odd ode to Joe Heaney
Pat Collin’s Irish-language feature is awkward, original and surprising throughout
Film Title: Song of Granite
Director: Pat Collins
Starring: Michael O'Chonfhlaola, Macdara O Fátharta, Leni Parker, Colm Seoighe
Running Time: 97 min
It’s unlikely that anybody ever thought to describe Joe Heaney as a cult hero. Such language wasn’t much used about sean-nós singers in the middle part of the last century. But the latest, intoxicating oddity from Pat Collins accidentally makes that case as it builds an intricate portrait of the man and his environments.
Heaney, a native Irish speaker, was raised in the village of Carna, Co Galway, and became an internationally celebrated interpreter of the old songs. He played at the Newport Folk Festival. In the years before his death, he became an artist-in-residence at the University of Washington in Seattle. Yet Heaney enjoyed little of the Arran-sweater renown that came the way of Liam Clancy in the 1960s. Unlike the Chieftains, he never played with The Rolling Stones. Unlike Planxty, he caught little of the post-hippie yearning for authenticity. A tight, passionate band of supporters knew what the rest of the world didn’t. That works as a definition of a cult. Right?
Song of Granite doesn’t ask these questions, but it does answer some of them. Collins has chosen his title well: the songs are as rugged as they are powerful. Heaney comes from a stony place and he sang a stony music that asked its listeners to stay quiet and lean inwards. The film offers little evidence of personal warmth either. A wife and family were abandoned as he lived the life of an everyday labourer in Glasgow and London. The film savours shots of Heaney sitting alone in his job as a concierge in a New York Hotel. There is little sense he would welcome real fame if it had come his way.
Pat Collins is as close to a one-off genius as the domestic medium can boast. In films such as Silence and Tim Robinson: Connemara he has shown a taste for insinuating big ideas into quietly spectacular landscapes. The new film is a little closer to a conventional feature than his previous work. Three actors play Heaney: Colm Seoighe is the child, Michael O’Chonfhlaola is the man in his prime, Macdara Ó Fátharta is the older Heaney. We move in roughly chronological – and cyclical – fashion towards a satisfactorily knotted ending. But the picture remains proudly awkward, original and surprising throughout. O’Chonfhlaola, a gifted singer, is asked to do most of the heavy lifting. Presenting a face that allows little emotion to seep in or out, he provides a tough core around which the film can weave its uncomfortable magic. He’s a singular creature. He’s also a sort of emigrant Everyman.
Song of Granite, the Irish submission to the Oscars for best foreign-language picture, succeeds in selling us its subject and eulogising his surroundings. Delivered complete, the songs tell us stories within the film’s own wider narrative. We see Heaney singing while at work. We catch him surrounded by the rapt audience in a pub.
It is, however, Collins’s figurative voice that registers most strongly with the viewer. Weaving archival footage in with Richard Kendrick’s bewitching, clean monochrome photography, the director blurs the lines between documentary, expressionist flourish and biographical drama. Tadhg O’Sullivan, a regular collaborator, edits with a restraint appropriate to the material. Always alert to the oblique, Collins spreads his aesthetic across an insidious, sometimes ambiguous sound design. The sense of control is overwhelming. There may have been accidents or improvisations on set, but the impression given is of furious discipline.
Some viewers may yearn for a touch more narrative drive. Many not familiar with the Irish language may wonder why the songs in that language are not subtitled. (The subtitling on the dialogue is excellent.) But nobody will emerge unmoved.