The dark side of Irish film

 

Anyone looking for escapism may have found the 21st Galway Film Fleadh hard going, but though the films on show are dark and often disturbing, there was also warmth and humour, writes DONALD CLARKE.

THINGS MIGHT BE looking up. It’s a warm evening, and a typically atypical Fleadh crowd has gathered on the patio attached to one of Galway’s larger, newer hotels. The recession was supposed to have skewered the world’s film industries, but, against the odds, commercial box-office takings are up and the Galway Film Fleadh, now celebrating its 21st year, appears jammed with assorted optimists.

Miriam Allen, the Fleadh’s manager, sees the issue as one of cost. “It’s still a cheap way to get entertained,” she says. “If you are running an event where the tickets are €40 or whatever, then you might have problems. But here it is affordable.” They do say that people seek escapism in times of uncertainty. “That’s right. It’s a way out.”

That said, there weren’t many frolics in the new Irish films previewing at the Fleadh. Over six days, the lucky viewer could enjoy castration, slow decay, decapitation, the brutal killing of (rather oddly) two unrelated sheep and the actual end of western civilisation. Yet the news from the festival, which specialises in screening new Irish features, remains very good. Too often at such events, the unlucky correspondent, fearful that the director of some bungling atrocity may ask his opinion, has to don a false beard and keep to the shadows.This was not the case at this year’s festival. Even the weakest new Irish films that I caught had something to recommend them.

Take Conor McMahon’s The Disturbed(if you are able). Before the film commenced, the director, a cordial young man, ambled before a hooting crowd and discussed the response he received from Felim Mac Dermott, the Fleadh programmer, when he submitted the piece. “I can’t say I enjoyedthe film,” Mac Dermott is alleged to have said. “But I was certainly disturbed by it.” Made for the cost of a decent haircut, The Disturbeddallies in torture-porn territory, so the programmer’s comments must be considered a recommendation. Nodding toward horrid classics such as Last House on the Leftand more recent outrages such as Saw, the film follows two amoral loons as they kidnap a young girl and drag her to the country for a weekend of recreational torment.

As the victim is tied to a chair, verbally abused and slapped about the face, the considerate viewer could be forgiven for anticipating an ever-greater escalation in violent misogyny. But, though The Disturbedcould never be mistaken for a feminist tract, McMahon’s inherent good nature quickly takes over and, before the inevitable bloody revenge is meted out, the villains have forsworn full-blown torture for a class of extreme bullying (cocktail sticks in the arm, drawing pins in the forehead).

Made in just five days, the film’s budgetary compromises do drag it down somewhat. The sound, in particular, is rather scrappy and, though Vinny Murphy’s excellent score successfully throbs its way through the aural murk, the dialogue is often frustratingly unintelligible. Still, made with verve and wit, The Disturbedshould, like McMahon’s equally disgusting Dead Meat, satisfy many bloodthirsty punters at horror festivals throughout the globe.

IF YOU WANTED cheering up after The Disturbedthen you might have been well advised to stay clear of Brendan Muldowney’s Savage. “I wanted to make something as disturbing as Gasper Noé’s Irreversible,” Muldowney, director of the excellent short The Ten Steps, told me. “But it didn’t quite work out that way.” He may not have delivered anything quite as horrific as the notorious nine-minute rape sequence in Noé’s film, but Muldowney has still managed to spread impressive degrees of grimness about his debut feature. Leaning towards Taxi Driveras well as Irreversible, the film focuses on a news photographer who, following a particularly brutal mugging in central Dublin, drifts into derangement as he contemplates a terrible revenge. Shot in shades of cobalt blue and gunmetal grey, utilising a brilliantly insidious sound design, Savagedoes a very good job of providing visual and aural correlatives for the protagonist’s fractured psyche.

Playing the lead, Darren Healy finds himself in virtually every shot and he rises to the task with admirable dignity. Even before the full scale of his trauma has been revealed – there’s a well-concealed shock at the film’s centre – he has disturbed the viewer with his effective arsenal of tics and grimaces. The picture does, perhaps, stray a tad towards melodrama and the tone is just a little one-note, but Muldowney here reveals a distinctive directorial voice that should launch him towards a long and successful career.

Ken Wardrop’s His Hers was among the most anticipated feature debuts at Galway and the film did not disappoint. Though still annoyingly young, Wardrop has already established a formidable reputation with shorts such as Undressing My Motherand Useless Dog. Aside from being touching and exquisitely made, the new film deserves praise for maintaining the director’s already recognisable signature traits: a quiet gift for observation; a sincere empathy for unglamorous lives; an inclination towards elegant compositions.

The idea behind His & Hersis so gorgeously neat it seems surprising that nobody has tried it before. Beginning with a shot of a baby and ending with a perky nonagenarian lady, the picture invites a sizeable collection of females from the Irish midlands, appearing in order of their age, to comment upon the men in their lives. We begin with young kids musing on their dads, move on to conversations about boyfriends, and then hear gossip about husbands and sons. By the close, many of the unseen gentlemen, have, inevitably, predeceased the interviewees and the film takes on a somewhat mournful tone.

Wardrop has, it seems, formidable confidence in his own vision. Every image, shot with a static camera, is fastidiously composed. Each house seems as well dusted and immaculately ordered as the one that precedes it. The effect could be distancing, but the contributors, whether discussing domestic banalities or matters of life and death, are so warm that the film is never short of charm.

As events progress, the notion that all these women are describing the same man becomes increasingly hard to shift. The fact that this invisible chap, though often a bit of an idiot, appears to be kind, unthreatening and attentive, says encouraging things about humanity and confirms this excellent film as an optimistic piece of work. Few were surprised when the film picked up the award for best Irish feature.

By way of contrast, you couldn’t honestly call Conor Horgan’s One Hundred Morningsparticularly cheery, but, to my mind, it just surpassed His & Hersas the finest domestic feature I saw at the Fleadh. Beautifully shot in washed-out watercolours by Suzie Lavelle, the film sends four young people to a remote cabin following a vaguely defined collapse in western society. The group is lucky enough to have a shed full of vodka and canned food, but, without a gun, they are unable to defend themselves against hungry neighbours and disreputable police officers.

More a personal drama than a post-apocalyptic thriller, the lean One Hundred Morningsis to be commended for what it dares to leave out. Featuring contained, committed performances by Suzie Lavelle, Kelly Campbell, Alex Reid and Rory Keenan, the film tells its unhappy story through a neat arc, but it never feels forced or overworked. There could be no higher compliment than to say that, after a first viewing, I wanted to see it again and discover what it all meant.

SO WHERE ARE all these airy distractions we were anticipating? Look no further than Zonad. In the small world of Irish film, the new (sort of) movie from Kieran Carney and John Carney, creators of Bachelor’s Walk, has long been a subject of gossip. With their colleague Tom Hall, the brothers made a version of the broad comedy as long ago as 2003, but that incarnation, featuring a rising Cillian Murphy, has been mislaid in the vaults.

Now, following John’s success with Once, they have returned to the story and the results are consistently deranged, occasionally scrappy, but always very funny. Featuring an engaging Simon Delaney as the titular protagonist, Zonadfollows a drunken layabout as, mistaken for an alien, he persuades the gullible inhabitants of a small Irish town to provide him with sex, sausages and booze. Set in an odd amalgam of 1950s America and contemporary Ireland, the film does strain at the constrictions of its tiny budget, but it’s so stupidly amusing that it would seem churlish to care.

Escapism at last.

Fleadh winners

Best Feature Documentary

The Coveby Louie Psihoyos

Best First Feature

Frozen Riverby Courtney Hunt

Best Irish Feature

His & Hersby Ken Wardrop

Shorts

Best First Animation

Blipby Sean Mullen and Ben Harper

Best Animation

The Polish Languageby Alice Lyons and Orla McHardy

Best Short Documentary

Christmas with Dadby Conor McCormack

Best First Short Drama

Thursday Afternoonby Manus McManus

Best Short Drama

The Man Insideby Rory Bresnihan

The Pitching Award

Get the Popeby Gary Mitchell