Violence. Sex. Drugs. Swearing. And other reasons to watch a film

Donald Clarke: What we object to at the cinema has changed. Movie ratings should too

Violence. Sex. Drugs. Swearing. Have I got your attention? That should win us this weekend’s clickbait war.

If you've nothing better to do it's worth paying occasional attention to the Grid of Shame (my phrase) that accompanies the Irish Film Classification Office's advice on current releases. Up the Y axis for each film's entry we find: Violence, Drugs, Sex/Nudity and Language. The X axis is broken down thus: None, Mild, Moderate, Strong. A mischievous part of my brain cheers any film that gets a full array of four Strongs and secures the concomitantly inevitable 18 certificate. That sounds like a movie I'd like to see.

'Kissing Candice' may have interested smarter 16-year-olds. Sadly, they will have to stay at home watching torture porn on the internet instead

This is, however, not a laughing matter for distributors. We may facetiously doff our hat to Kissing Candice, which gets the full house this week, but that 18 cert will limit the audience for Aoife McArdle's drama. Following a teenage girl's traumas in an Irish Border town, the independent Irish feature may have interested smarter 16-year-olds. Sadly, they will have to stay at home watching torture porn on the internet instead.

Few will have emerged from Kissing Candice shuddering like those susceptible to the recent Hereditary. Yet that horror film escaped with a 16 cert. Its Grid of Shame confirms there was no drug use and sex/nudity was only Mild. Was that it?


Ger Connolly, the current director of film classification, is keen to explain that he thought hard about the certificate for McArdle's film. "It's the drug abuse and murder of a minor. That just crossed the line," he says. "That was a boundary that I felt was too far. Others may disagree."

If we must have some form of film classification then the Irish incarnation is as responsibly managed as any other. No theatrical release has been refused a certificate (an effective ban) in close to 20 years. The liberalisation that set in with John Kelleher's appointment as director, in 2003, has continued. You may scoff at the 18 certificate awarded to the soporifically vanilla Fifty Shades of Grey – sexual violence is always an issue – but it received the same treatment in the Godless United Kingdom. The British Board of Film Classification did award Kissing Candice a 15 cert, but such divergence is rare. Throughout this century you would struggle to fit a fag paper between British and Irish attitudes to film certification.

Recent decisions do, however, prompt us to wonder what we're protecting the poor wee children from these days. The IFCO is among several similar bodies to acknowledge that racial and social insensitivity now disturbs viewers more than a flash of bosom or a hurriedly uttered C-word, F-word or MF-word. In the accompanying notes for the recent big-screen version of the TV series Damo & Ivor, the classification office warned viewers of "racial stereotyping". This feels like a new development.

Connolly acknowledges that it was the broad depiction of a Traveller in Damo & Ivor: The Movie that prompted this observation. "It is something that affects not just people's sensibilities but also their sense of right and wrong," he says. "We are just trying to be reflective of society."

All this makes sense. Moral standards are not absolute. They shift across time and space. Although most anglophone countries now think similarly on film classification, the French are conspicuously more liberal when it comes to sex and nudity. Earlier this month, when discussing François Ozon's sexually uninhibited L'Amant Double, many film writers gleefully described the opening shot of a dilating vagina and then pointed out that the film got a 12 certificate in its home nation. The British and the Irish went with an 18. Our friends in the Fifth Republic also allowed anybody aged 12 or over into Fifty Shades of Grey.

Why are we keeping children away from old-fashioned rumpy pumpy while allowing them to watch large amounts of mindless slaughter?

Obviously, no opportunity to make fun of the French should be squandered, but it’s hard to escape the notion that they have the right idea. Why are we keeping children away from old-fashioned rumpy pumpy (note how we uptight Irish fall to humour here, Frenchy) while allowing them to watch large amounts of mindless slaughter? Why are we still bothered about blue language? Does anybody take to drugs because they’ve seen somebody using in a movie? Why are we bothering with any of this when endless appalling material is freely available on the internet?

Well, the controversial trigger warning – the announcement that what you’re about to see contains potentially distressing material – is increasingly visible in even that digital Babylon, and at the cinema we expect just a little less anarchy. The legal imposition of age limits does seem dated, but the advisory role of the Irish Film Classification Office is worth maintaining. “People may think it’s a thing of bygone days,” Ger Connolly says. “But I don’t see our job as it once was. I see our job as being a consumer-advice organisation.”

To that end the IFCO will be launching a new website in a few weeks. We will be lobbying for retention of the Grid of Shame.