The Meeting: Real-life rape story is uncomfortable viewing

Review: This unusual film is powerful and unsettling, but what are we watching?

The Meeting - official trailer

Ailbhe Griffith in The Meeting

Film Title: The Meeting

Director: Alan Gilsenan

Starring: Ailbhe Griffith, Marie Keenan, Terry O’Neill, Kevin McCormack, Brenda McSweeney, Allan Keating

Genre: Drama

Running Time: 95 min

Fri, Sep 28, 2018, 05:00

   

There is no easy way of reviewing the latest, thought-provoking film from the versatile Alan Gilsenan. The Meeting, focusing on a woman’s attempt to process a violent rape, will trigger sympathy and interest from any viewer with even a sliver of empathy.

But what are we watching? It’s not exactly a drama. It’s probably not a documentary. The film-makers set out to tell part of the story in real time with “no messing”.

But some aestheticisation inevitably takes place and – most conspicuously in an unfortunate final shot – the film does accommodate the odd cliche of popular entertainment. One ends up feeling uncomfortable for both the right reasons and the wrong reasons.

Ailbhe Griffith was raped in 2004. Leaning responsibly towards a sober narrative technique that invites little sensationalism, The Meeting begins by highlighting short, gut-wrenching excerpts of text from the official records (I’m assuming).

A man stalked her on the bus, followed her into suburban Dublin and brutally assaulted her. In a bizarre addendum that no crime writer would risk, the assailant then walked her around in search of a taxi – pausing occasionally to deliver a further clout – before two passersby intervened and chased the man away. He was later arrested and he eventually pleaded guilty.

The Meeting engages with the aftermath. Griffith had questions she wanted answered. With the co-operation of Restorative Justice Services and Dr Marie Keenan, a distinguished forensic psychotherapist at UCD, she arranged a meeting with her attacker, at which both dredged through memories of the wretched night.

Any viewer coming to the film with no prior knowledge could be forgiven for assuming they were watching the cinematic equivalent of “verbatim theatre” such as Richard Norton-Taylor’s The Colour of Justice. In that play, actors spoke from the official record of the Stephen Lawrence inquiry.

Though Ailbhe Griffith’s rapist has reached some degree of self-awareness, creepy evasions and deflections still appear

Gilsenan’s film is, however, different in two significant regards. Firstly, the text is not compiled from recordings or transcripts – there were none – but pieced together from conversations with those who attended the meeting. Secondly, two of those appearing on screen, Griffith and Dr Keating, are playing themselves (if “playing” is the word here). The actor Terry O’Neill stands in for the rapist.

The result is unquestionably powerful and unsettling. Though the criminal has reached some degree of self-awareness, creepy evasions and deflections still appear. After explaining how he was badly hurt during apprehension and how his family were forced to move home, he allows that “I know you had it worse and all.”

Ailbhe could have been forgiven for replying “You think?”, but on this evidence she retained her dignified composure throughout. His conclusion that a sight of her “high heels” triggered the attack is chilling. Meanwhile, speaking in a clear, precise tone, Griffith explains how – defying the rapist’s apparent objective – she has never felt a smidgen of shame.

The film-makers are to be commended for getting all this information into a public space, but The Meeting still comes across as an awkward construction. Ailbhe Griffith, a charismatic presence, is allowed to be herself and is not compelled to give any sort of “performance”.

In contrast Terry O’Neill, an excellent actor doing his best with difficult material, could be the star antagonist in a Val McDermid adaptation. The two things don’t quite go together.

The recreation of stuffy office dynamics – Bourbon biscuits and stilted greetings – adds a sense of flat realism, but the heightened sound tweaks and the showy bird’s-eye shots nudge us towards more self-conscious territory. There is a sense that somebody is working hard to make the piece seem “cinematic”. Ailbhe’s final walk into a blazing white light suggests nothing so much as one of those faith-based dramas that struggle for release outside the US.

Still, only a monster could fail to be moved by s Griffith’s testimony here. There are such people.

Opens today