Silence (Ireland 2012)

The landscapes of the west of Ireland captured in sound and image . . .

The landscapes of the west of Ireland captured in sound and image . . .

Silence is a rare example of a genuine ‘art film’ on a standard specialised cinema release (a seemingly contradictory description, but I can’t think of a better way of putting it). The film directed by Pat Collins and written by Collins and Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhríde, who is also the lead actor, has only a vestigial narrative. This involves an Irish sound recordist, currently living in Berlin, who accepts a job requiring him to record the sound of wild places devoid of human-created sounds. The recordist finds himself returning to Ireland and ultimately to the islands off the coast of Donegal where he grew up as a child. The idea as I understand it was to riff on the idea of folklore recordists/collectors who visited the west of Ireland in the 1930s/40s.

I suppose that Silence is a ‘road movie’ of sorts, but only if the narrative structural elements are the main criteria for generic definitions. The film is mostly concerned with visual and aural poetry. It’s effectively an ‘essay film’ in which the filmmakers explore the potency of landscape and how it can be represented through sounds in relation to concepts of family history, exile and migration. Nothing is stated directly. Instead we are offered the recordist’s (mumbled) conversations with a variety of characters he meets on his travels up the west coast of Ireland intercut with some archive footage and the sparing use of music, mainly traditional and classical. The key song appears to be the haunting Sandy Denny performance of her own ‘Who Knows Where the Time Goes’ which appears briefly in the film and then plays through the end credits.

Silence was shot by Richard Kendrick on a RED digital camera using vintage Russian Lomo lenses for an anamorphic image presented in CinemaScope. The lenses soften the image and give it a specific texture that combines with the emphasis on natural sounds of wind, sea, birdsong etc. The slow pace prompts the audience to listen carefully to the soundscape. The sound recording approach from Éamon Little and John Brennan was influenced by the work of Chris Watson (featured in David Attenbrough’s natural history programmes). At times the editing of sound and image is pushed to the fore with overlaps of voices and images and conversations drifting in and out of synchronised sound. This is discussed by editor Tadhg O’ Sullivan in the Press Notes. O’ Sullivan knows Pat Collins well and in fact most of the ‘actors’ in the film play themselves. Collins is a documentary-filmmaker exploring his own (and Mac Giolla Bhríde’s) feelings about the landscapes of the west of Ireland and the stories of the people who have left.

Eoghan in the little local museum on Inisbofin.

Eoghan in the little local museum on Inishbofin.

The west of Ireland used to be one of the most populous parts of the country up until the great famine of the 1840s.  Many people emigrated in the 19th century but a long slow decline then followed which seems to have now abated with some settlement by individuals looking for peace and solitude. But young people still find it difficult to get work and many have to leave. One of the poignant moments in the film sees Eoghan visiting a young woman in Inishbofin who has set up a local museum in an old storehouse. She speaks about going to boarding school and returning home to experience the coming of electricity to the island (which actually arrived in 2002).

I enjoyed the experience of watching the film in a cinema. It needs patience, close attention and lack of distraction to appreciate all its nuances. I would have found it difficult to watch on DVD and so I’m glad it got into theatrical distribution.

What Richard Did (Ireland 2012)

Richard (Jack Reyner) and Lara (Roísín Murphy). photo © Element Pictures

Richard (Jack Reynor) and Lara (Roísín Murphy). photo © Element Pictures

Obviously, I’m not going to tell you what Richard did, but actually the film is about what happened afterwards. Lenny Abrahamson’s film is set amongst the gilded youth of a South Dublin middle class community (or should that be upper-middle-class?). In the summer before he starts university, Richard seems to have it all. He’s been one of the stars of the rugby team at a prestigious school. His parents own a beach house in Co. Wicklow and he drives his own Golf. He’s the leader of his group and in some ways a ‘father figure’ at 18, looking out for younger guys (and girls) – he’s the kind of guy who can reassure other guys’ parents. If their son or daughter is with Richard, they’ll be fine. But when Richard meets Lara, he starts to change.

What Richard Did is a taut and suspenseful study of one young man’s summer and the effects of a moment of madness – which in itself is almost banal in its familiarity in a film involving 18 year-old boys. Far more sinister is what happens afterwards and the way in which privilege allows characters to erase certain kinds of social distress and to ‘move on’. On the other hand, human compassion probably means that we don’t want Richard to have to live with what he has done. We are more likely to be wishing for a way out, no matter how complicit that might make us feel. The film is very much about social class, but the early indications of the potential damage that class difference can create are presented in quite subtle ways. Later, when the boys of the rugby team ‘bond’ by singing the school song in a formal setting it is very disturbing. One review mentioned the omerta, the ‘code of silence’ in Southern Italy and that seems a good call, except that there is no ‘community’ as such to fall back on.

Lenny Abrahamson has already proved himself as adept in creating important fictions about different sectors of Irish society in Adam & Paul and Garage. What Richard Did is just as good as the earlier films. So far I’ve only come up with two slight problems. As in Garage, there is a narrative moment early in the film that you later realise has hinted at the narrative dénouement. This is a feature of Hitchcockian thrillers and the like and there is nothing wrong with it – in fact it can add immeasurably to the pleasure of unpicking the narrative to see how these ‘pre-markers’ fit in. But What Richard Did otherwise doesn’t seem that kind of film. Abrahamson’s skill seems to be in creating a narrative that is open to several different forms of interpretation rather than being some kind of puzzle game. My second complaint is purely practical. For the first twenty minutes or so I had great difficulty following the dialogue. Later in the narrative, the problem faded away. Perhaps my ear gradually tuned in? More likely, the language register changed. The screenwriter Malcolm Campbell attempted to go for the most authentic representation of the speech of these South Dublin teens after sitting in Starbucks with them and jotting down words and phrases during his research. As an Irish student blog puts it:

[The film’s] only flaw on the international table is its huge dependency on south-sider and Dublin slang. It’s brilliant and fits the film, but it keeps it anchored to the island.

The film has been sold in Europe where it will be subtitled and I wish I’d had the benefit of subs. I understood the tone of the exchanges between characters in the early scenes but I missed the nuances and therefore I didn’t pick up on the development of Richard’s interest in Lara and its repercussions as quickly as I would have liked. But in a way, my struggle to hear the dialogue is in keeping with other aspects of Abrahamson’s approach. He gives very little background on Richard’s family and none on Lara’s or those of Richard’s other friends. We do get to meet Richard’s father played by Lars Mikkelsen, but the Danish side of the family isn’t explained as such (Richard’s family name is Karlsen). Mikkelsen’s father is a mysterious character and his performance adds to this in a pivotal scene in which he talks to his son in a way that we guess he hasn’t done before. I’ve seen one negative review of the Mikkelsen casting, but everyone else has praised it. His presence makes us think about Danish dramas and What Richard Did for me stands up to the best of that very strong tradition of Nordic film drama.

Lars Mikkelsen as Richard's father © Element Pictures

Lars Mikkelsen as Richard’s father photo © Element Pictures

The rest of the cast is excellent too. Three of the principals were themselves at school in Dublin when Abrahamson found them, with the boys coming from Belvedere College and Gonzaga College, Jesuit private schools that are two of the most highly-regarded in Ireland. But the film stands or falls on the casting and performance of Jack Reynor as Richard. He is astonishingly good in embodying the child-man who is forced to learn about himself so painfully. In certain close-ups the ‘fuzz’ of hair on puppy fat or the quizzical look makes him seem a younger teenager (see the image below). At other times his athletic body and broad shoulders make him a man. He performs his role to perfection – though the outstanding direction by Abrahamson and very effective cinematography (by David Grennan) must share some of the praise. Reynor has gone on to appear in other Irish films but he has also been snapped up by Michael Bay for Transformers 4. I desperately hope he survives that experience intact.

Richard's occasional younger face. © Element Pictures

Richard’s occasional younger face. © photo Element Pictures

What Richard Did is a ‘must-see’ film. As I left the screening one of my colleagues suggested that it was almost like an Eric Rohmer film. I think I contested this but the more I think about it, the sense of a ‘moral tale’ becomes more palpable. Perhaps it is also (as the director hints) in some ways allegorical about Ireland after the crash of 2008 with a moneyed class who have so far avoided the pain suffered by the majority?

Official website (with screening dates in the UK and Ireland)

Watch online via Artificial Eye/Curzon Cinemas in UK

Download from Virgin, HMV etc. in UK

Get the Press Pack here.

Hannah McGill’s review of the film in Sight & Sound (February 2013) makes several assertions that I’m not sure about (her summary is incorrect in at least one respect). She says that both Lara and Conor are Catholic and from a lower social class than Richard who she asserts is Protestant. In fact she says that Lara is Catholic ‘by heavy implication’. I must have missed something here. I didn’t see too many overt religious references. I assume that most of the characters are Catholic (and Richard’s school). Richard’s Danish father is more likely to be Lutheran but I took the Karlsens to be a largely secular family. Can somebody help me out? (There is also a useful background piece on the film in the same issue of Sight & Sound.)

Garage (Ireland 2007)

Pat Sortt as Josie in the bar with Carmel (Anne-Marie Duff in the orange top)

Pat Shortt as Josie in the bar with Carmel (Anne-Marie Duff in the orange top)

The recent release of What Richard Did by Lenny Abrahamson (review to follow) has prompted me to go back to look at his earlier release from 2007. Both this and his 2004 first feature Adam and Paul were on my radar but I hadn’t found time to watch them. I’m glad now that I finally made the effort.

Garage is set in an unnamed small town in rural Ireland (it seems to have been shot in several different parts of the country, but mainly in the ‘West Midlands’) and its central character is Josie (Pat Shortt), a 40 year-old man who ‘runs’ the town’s filling station/garage situated outside the town on the main road. In reality he is mainly the caretaker as business is slack and we never see Josie actually serve anyone. He’s employed by one of his old schoolmates who is now an entrepreneur in the town and he lives a fairly solitary life, bedding down in a backroom of the garage. Josie is considered as a little ‘slow’ by the local community – but he is cheerful and friendly and most of the locals don’t make fun of him or abuse his trust. The one lout who does bully him in the bar is the exception. Josie’s life begins to change when his boss decides that there is more passing trade and that the garage should stay open longer. Consequently  Josie is joined by an ‘assistant’, a shy and gawky 15 year-old, David. Well-played by Ryan O’Connor, David is a ‘blow-in’ to the small community and therefore initially an ‘outsider’ like Josie in social terms. He’s intelligent and sometimes a bit spiky – a ‘normal’ adolescent – but he gets on with Josie and they become friends. This friendship leads Josie into contacts with the other local teens and perhaps makes him reflect on his loneliness. Indirectly, David’s presence will lead to a series of tragic events.

My first thoughts about the film were that this was a low-budget European art film. There are no genre indications as such except towards the setting of the small town and its possibilities for drama. The town and the handful of local inhabitants are presented in a realist manner and my thoughts turned towards the Dardenne Brothers – but not so intense. A review I read mentioned Bresson. There is gentle humour in the initial representation of Josie’s mundane daily rituals and his contact with various characters. There is also a sense of the relative tranquility of rural Ireland and the potential for some kind of magic in the evening light – although the skies that Josie so enjoys seemed foreboding to me with their scudding clouds. Gradually however, we realise that happy though Josie appears to be in his own little world, he still seeks the possibility of intimacy in a relationship. Eventually too, we realise that Abrahamson is using Peter Robertson’s beautiful cinematography to compose shots very carefully and to look for various forms of symbolism in the mise en scène. The film is slow and nearly always calm. Pat Stortt’s performance is exceptional. He was first a comedian specialising in physical comedy and he uses the skills of a physical comedian to create a distinctive gait for his character, as well as an appropriate voice. His performance also has a resonance since he is well-known in Ireland for a comedy series set in the same kind of location as that in Garage.

I was a little surprised to read in the Press Pack this quote from Lenny Abrahamson:

“Josie is really a contemporary village idiot character but the Irish village doesn’t have
any place for him anymore.”

I’m not sure I would use that term to describe a character in a contemporary drama. Of course, I know what he means but it does raise what might be the uncomfortable question at the centre of the film. If this is a realist depiction of Irish rural life, it suggests that there is no modern infrastructure to replace the traditional village community in what is usually seen as one of the more affluent and ‘developed’ societies in Europe. On the other hand, as events transpire, we might argue that the ‘regulation’ of contemporary society is what really makes Josie suffer – that and economic developments. The town’s residents who know Josie and tolerate him don’t really listen to him or help him with his problems. They are just glad that he seems happy. I was interested to read the range of IMDb comments. They include many Irish commentators, but also other Europeans. While most clearly liked the film and thought it praiseworthy, there are a couple of gainsayers, including one who argues that it isn’t a very good representation of a character with mild learning difficulties and another who argues that the residents are too morose and that the rural Irish are more likely to moan and get angry about their lot. These are fair points but as an arthouse film Garage works very well. The excellent production is enhanced by the presence of George Costigan in a small but vital role and Anne-Marie Duff as Carmel (who could probably act as a focus for another story). I can see why the film won one of the Cannes prizes and why Abrahamson and his collaborators are seen as one of Ireland’s most important filmmaking teams.

The final shot of this rather good trailer offers an example of the very effective lighting and composition:

BIFF 2012 #7: Albert Nobbs (Ireland/UK/Fra 2011)

Glenn Close as Albert Nobbs and Mia Wasikowska as Helen Dawes

I enjoyed Albert Nobbs. I’m not sure what I expected, but overall the film works well. It’s an oddity in the sense that it was shown in North American festivals last year in time for Oscar nominations for both Glenn Close and Janet McTeer and subsequently given a limited release in the US and Canada. Yet it has had to wait until April 27th 2012 for a UK and Ireland release. The film seems to have had some negative reviews in the US and while I don’t agree with the tone of those reviews, some of them do hone in on a central problem that I recognise.

Albert Nobbs is based on a short story by the Irish writer George Moore (1852-1933), perhaps best known for Esther Waters, his 1894 novel which became a British film in 1948. A realist writer, compared on Wikipedia with Émile Zola, Moore was a genuine internationalist writer having lived in Paris and London and is said to have influenced Joyce. The story of Albert Nobbs is set in Dublin at the end of the 19th century but was written in 1917-18. Albert is revealed to us a little way into the film as a woman who has ‘passed’ for a man in order to achieve the security and relative prosperity associated with being a waiter/butler in a small hotel in Dublin catering for a range of middle-class and upper middle-class customers. One night Albert is ‘found out’ through a chance encounter with a painter and decorator who is also ‘passing’, but who has somehow managed to have a fuller and richer life than Albert who is, quite literally, ‘buttoned up’. Herein lies the driving force of the narrative as Albert aspires to be ‘free’ in some way.

The film has been a pet project of Glenn Close since she first played the role on stage in 1982. After a one failed production (when financing was lost) to be directed by Istvan Szabo, Close collaborated with the novelist John Banville and a new director Rodrigo García, a very experienced Latin American filmmaker with many well-known US TV series in his credits. The film has a starry cast including the very talented Mia Wasikowska and a host of Irish and British stalwarts. It looks terrific and it doesn’t aspire, as I feared it might, to the kind of Downton Abbey/Upstairs Downstairs social class interplay. This is primarily a ‘downstairs’/’backstairs’ drama. I’m sorry to say that the problem is Ms Close, or rather the make-up and costume design that is deemed suitable to make her into Albert. She does look odd, with a rigid face in which seemingly only the eyes move. Dressed formally to ‘walk out’ around Dublin with a bowler perched on her head she seems like an escapee from Woody Allen’s Sleepers or a new android that might appear in Dr Who. All this is thrown into relief by Janet McTeer as ‘Hubert Page’ who makes a completely convincing man (and woman, as one startling scene reveals). None of this is meant as a criticism of Glenn Close’s acting skills as I’m a great admirer. I just think the casting is wrong.

It would be a shame if any worries about the central role meant that audiences missed the other pleasures that the film has to offer. ‘Passing’ narratives like this have a long history and enable a discourse about gender representations from a different angle. For instance, in this narrative it’s instructive to consider all the women in the hotel and how their behaviour is altered by social class and codes of propriety. This being Ireland in 1899 religious prohibitions are also important. But male homosexuality seems less of an issue. I’d like to see the film again in order to explore these issues in more detail. I’m also tempted now to what I think was a wholly successful ‘passing’ narrative – Maggie Greenwald’s The Ballad of Little Jo (US 1993).

Here’s the US trailer: