Director Paul Mercier (Pursuit), Irish Film Festa 2016 [ph. Mario Bodo]
Dr John McCourt delves into the love triangle at the heart of Paul Mercier’s Pursuit, which screened at the recent Irish Film Festa in Rome.
One of the highlights of the ninth annual Irish Film Festa held at the Casa del Cinema in Rome and organised by the indefatigable Susanna Pellis, was Paul Mercier’s 2015 film, Pursuit. A full house reacted warmly to this a rich, all-action, multi-layered gangster movie which works on many levels simultaneously. A multi-generic film, it is at once passionately compelling, tragic, and comic. Pursuit is an all-too real and topical film which narrates a war between criminal gangs in Dublin.
Should anyone in the audience have thought that the scenes of urban violence, of criminality, were in some way exaggerated, all we need do is open the Irish newspapers of the past few months to see that this film corresponds to a grim reality in the capital. An alternative underground world reigns in Ireland and this violent parallel universe, this criminal kingdom within the State, is suggested in the film by Mercier’s decision to call this Dublin by another name, Tara. At once recalling the ancient seat of Irish Kings, Mercier’s Tara is more obviously the battleground of the criminal Kingpins and drugs lords that carve up the city and are all unyielding in pursuing their destructive agendas.
Set in an Ireland of poverty-stricken and lawless housing estates which are the nests of gangland Dublin, the film also offers glimpses of a more peaceful but ultimately marginal Ireland, that of its magnificent rural mountain and coastal regions. It is also partly set in Spain. The plot is set in motion with a failed attempt to assassinate Fionn. In order to save his own life and to make a truce which might lead to peace between criminal rivals, Fionn follows his lawyer’s advice and makes a proposal to marry Gráinne, the daughter of Mr King, a leading criminal figure in the city. Given that Fionn is much older than his intended bride, this is little more than a marriage of convenience and yet all seems to get off to a good start until Gráinne rebels and takes Fionn’s trusted bodyguard, Diarmuid, hostage and flees with him. A long and dramatic chase ensues.
The film has an excellent cast, many of whom, such as the excellent Owen Roe (Mr King) and Game of Thrones star Liam Cunningham (Fionn) started their careers with Mercier back in the eighties with the hugely innovative theatre company, Passion Machine which did so much to reinvigorate and reinvent Irish theatre. Brendan Gleeson also started out with Passion Machine and here plays a small but significant role as the Searbhán, a sleazy criminal leader who has escaped working class Dublin squalor for the comforts of a luxurious villa in Spain, entirely financed by his criminal network at home. The two protagonists are played with passion and energy by Barry Ward (Diarmuid) who builds on his excellent performance in Ken Loach’s Jimmy’s Hall, and Ruth Bradley (Gráinne). Bradley is the emotional centre of the film, fully owning and clearly relishing this unusually rich and complex female role.
Pursuit is a love story. It tells of a love that was buried for years but which is nonetheless real and important. It is the story of a love which is momentarily a thing of beauty, but is also desperate and fleeting. Like many love stories, Pursuit is also the story of betrayal and revenge.
It is also, crucially, a story of the desire for freedom. It portrays the desire to escape from a violent upbringing, a home life in which exploitation, drug and alcohol abuse is the daily reality; the desire to leave behind a family whose roots are ineluctably tied into the world of criminality. It breathlessly narrates an attempt to escape a lawless, exploitative world, telling the story of a flight which is inevitably followed by a relentless pursuit by a criminal world which will permit no escape. Writing of Ulysses, T.S. Eliot coined the term “mythic method” to describe how Joyce juxtaposed the classical and the contemporary, how he used the template of Homer’s Odyssey and built upon it a rich and complex modern text of his contemporary Dublin. Reading Ulysses we are conscious of two simultaneous time frames, that of Homer’s classic text and that of 1904 Dublin. Something similar or analogous happens in Mercier’s Pursuit, which is a rewriting, a transposition of the classic Irish legend of Diarmuid and Gráinne – Tóraíocht Dhiarmada agus Gráinne. This ancient Gaelic text from the Fenian Cycle of Celtic mythology forms a foundational layer for this very contemporary film (hence the names and place names as well as countless other references the alert viewer will spot and enjoy). The Diarmuid and Gráinne myth is the palimpsest upon which Mercier constructs his unforgiving vision of modern Dublin. The myth is that of a love triangle between the great but aging warrior and widower, Fionn MacCumhaill, the beautiful but headstrong princess, Gráinne, and Fionn’s loyal bodyguard, Diarmuid. This is a text that dates back over a thousand years, with various sixteenth century texts available today. It is a protean foundational myth within Irish culture and one which has been reinvigorated, reinterpreted down through time, for example in Diarmuid and Grania, a poetic play co-written by George Moore and W. B. Yeats in 1901, in Austin Clarke’s The Vengeance of Fionn (1917), in Eavan Boland’s version of the story, called “Song”, which appears in her 1975 collection The War Horse and in various re-modelings for film and theatre by Billy Roche. It is given a remarkable new reading in Mercier’s radical resetting.
And yet the beauty of his film (much like Joyce’s Ulysses), is that the viewer does not need to know a thing about the original legend. The film stands firmly on its own two feet even if a profound layer of meaning and nuance is added for those familiar with the legend. In an interview, Mercier stated that his film “is really aimed at an Irish audience, it’s hard to know how it will travel”.
Mercier can rest assured that it will travel very well indeed. Precisely because of its local rootedness, its fidelity to a harsh Irish reality, the film has a broad appeal. Although it is a cliché, it is true to say that the universal is contained within the local. The unforgiving narration of the Irish criminal world, the use of vibrant and bristling Irish-English speech, coupled with the universal themes of love, jealousy, betrayal and violence, and the quest for freedom, which are filtered from the foundational Diarmuid and Gráinne narrative, together make this a film that can be seen, understood, and enjoyed around the world.
It met with an enthusiastic response after its screening at the Roma Film Festa at the Casa del Cinema in the Villa Borghese, an event which, under the guidance of Susanna Pellis, has grown into an important showcase for Irish cinema in Europe.
In addition to showing full-length features such as Lenny Abrahamson’s universally acclaimed Room and Dathai Keane’s An Klondike (which won four IFTA awards the following evening in Dublin), this year’s Festa also showed several 1916 documentaries and films (including, Liam Neeson’s now twenty-year-old Michael Collins). But for many the highlight was the Film Festa’s focus on Irish shorts. Maurice Joyce picked up the best animated film award for his wonderfully paced and beautifully drawn Violet while Paris-based Audrey O’Reilly won best short film with her spare and moving Wait (another notable performance by Owen Roe, flanked by Rory Keenan as his son).
This may be the time of highly successful big-budget Irish films like Brooklyn and Room but the Irish Film Festa in Rome and events like it serve to remind us just how much more cinematic creativity is bubbling along just below the surface spotlight.
Dr John McCourt is Associate Professor of English Literature at Università Roma Tre.
The Irish Film Festa 2016 took place 7 – 10 April 2016