Ciara Barrett takes a look at Irish short film The Wake and chats to writer and director Bernadette Manton about her latest film.
Bernadette Manton’s The Wake is a softly gorgeous and contemplative short film. As an observation on the Irish Catholic tradition of waking the dead, it presents a conflict between the religious and humanist approaches to dealing with loss, while maintaining sympathy and appreciation for both sides.
The touchstone of the film is Sorcha Kerins (The Ecstasy of Isabel Mann, A Christmas Carol) as Aoife, a seventeen year-old girl from Dublin who revisits her family homestead in County Clare for the wake of her beloved grandmother (Kathleen Devine). In the central role, Kerins displays an extraordinary emotional maturity as an actress, as well as a beautiful singing voice, which is shown off at various points in the film. Music, as a sort of bridge between Catholic ritual and raw, primal emotion is a crucial motif within the film, rendering it both literally and figuratively lyrical.
In conversation with Bernadette Manton, writer and director of The Wake, she has spoken about short film’s intended function as a medium for the “observation” of emotional states and the creation of atmosphere, more so than the straightforward depiction of events in a linear, cause-and-effect manner. Telling of the efficacy of Manton’s directorial approach is a flashback in The Wake, about halfway through the film, to a moment from Aoife’s childhood. She sits in a group of children around her grandmother, who is laid back in bed recounting tales of growing up in rural Ireland. Manton’s stationery and unobtrusive camera lingers on the scene longer than might be necessary for strictly narrative purposes, yet the point is not in the information the grandmother verbally conveys, but rather the overall accumulation of a feeling of memory, of Sorcha’s deep-rooted attachment to her grandmother, and, in Manton’s words, the sense that “the viewer is seeing something they shouldn’t be.”
In other moments, such as the deeply affecting wake scene, Manton’s camera is distinctly mobile, moving between the actors as they play out the scene in real time. According to Manton, the actors almost instinctually seemed to know how to play the scene – likely due to the fact of their familiarity with, and emotional connection to, the shared Irish tradition of waking. “Everyone,” Manton notes, “just knew what to do.”
The naturalistic performances of The Wake could be seen as at odds with its more self-consciously lyrical shooting style, which is evident in Manton’s lingering shots of the Burren landscape: here Aoife has an almost dreamlike encounter with singer-songwriter Declan O’Rourke (whose music, along with Christy Moore and Donal Lunny’s, is featured on The Wake’s soundtrack). But in such a way Manton succeeds in representing that strangely surreal – and perhaps simultaneously hyperreal – atmosphere that surrounds moments of profound grief and emotional intensity.
Manton has confirmed that The Wake was an extremely personal film to make, inspired by her own experiences losing family members as a child/young adult; however, it should resonate with audiences both familiar and unfamiliar with the very particular (some might say peculiar) conventions of the Irish Catholic wake. Interestingly, Manton has expressed some degree of apprehension regarding Irish audiences’ reception of a film so explicitly in dialogue with – and even confrontational to – religious/cultural tradition, which is also linked so inextricably to personal feeling and memory. In her own words, Manton questions a greater Irish tradition of “doing it just because”; it is this quiet sensibility of individualism that lingers long after the final frames of the film.
Manton has described herself as a writer/director interested in “pushing the boundaries” of reality. Speaking about a planned feature which will revolve around a mature couple in charge of a funeral home brushing with the paranormal, and judging from her past work in the gripping and intense Blood (2011), Manton’s work will continue to be concerned with the testing of emotional edges, the blurring and crossing of borders (between bodies, between life and death) and the interrogation of human subjectivities. She is one to watch now in the beautiful Wake, just as she will be one to watch in years to come.