DIR: Pat Collins • WRI: Pat Collins, Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhride • PRO: Jessie Fisk, Alan Maher • DOP: Richard Kendrick • ED: Tadhg O’Sullivan • DES: David Blanchard, David Blanchard, Padraig O’Neill • CAST: Michael O’Chonfhlaola, Macdara O Fátharta, Leni Parker
Bobbing lights of humble fishing boats shine against the dark monochromatic backdrop of open water. A new Mother’s brow is patted dry as she breathes through the pain of childbirth. This is the beginning of Song of Granite and the beginning of Joe Heaney’s life story. The biography of the legendary sean-nós singer, Heaney, is told in three parts by director Pat Collins through breathtaking visual poetry and traditional song.
Song of Granite, directed, co-written and co-produced by Collins was selected by the Irish Film & Television Academy to represent Ireland as a submission to the 88th Academy awards. The film has been shortlisted for nomination in the category of Best Foreign Language Film, along with eight other entries from around the world.
It is a uniquely executed film that is difficult to define by genre. Song of Granite is mostly a dramatised account of Heaney’s life from birth to old age with a sampling of archive footage and voiceovers woven in. It is shot exclusively in black and white, blending the dramatic with the archive footage. This gives the entire film the look and feel of a documentary glimpse into the life of a pre-war rural Ireland. Scenes of a young Heaney scavenging for periwinkles and cutting turf with his father could easily be mistaken for remastered outtakes of the 1934 documentary Man of Aran.
The photography in Song of Granite is nothing short of enchanting. The composition of each shot is a picture perfect tableau. Scenes of Carna villagers gathered to share stories or to listen Heaney’s father could be on a vintage postcard or the subject of a Paul Henry painting.
The script, co-written by Collins, Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhride and Sharon Whooley, does not play out as a traditional plot. Instead, we are presented with a realistic look into the authentic life of an ordinary Irish man with an extraordinary talent. It is a refreshing take on a biopic, true to Collin’s documentarian roots. It is free from the obvious fact twisting and hyperbole that so often corrupts true stories to fit into classic cinematic narratives.
Most of the dialogue is delivered in Irish with subtitles. However, not much speaking goes on at all. This will be a relief to any viewers who, like myself, have regrettably lost every word of Irish since leaving school. The film is slow paced and peaceful. Only music seems to pierce the silent, calm nature of this film. In a tiny pub heaving with revellers, Heaney takes part in a trad session filled with so much raucous and immersive energy that the viewer feels incomplete without a pint in hand. The story is about Joe Heaney but it is the music that stars.
Collins has already proved to be a master of soundscape with his 2012 film Silence. Dozens of traditional Irish songs are heard throughout Song of Granite. Sometimes the mood is spirited and exuberant and other times the sound and focus are unbroken creating an incredible intimacy that allows the audience to fully engage with the moment. The poetry of these ballads will resonate with the audience for quite some time after viewing. Even those who are not fans of traditional music will surely feel the poignancy of these songs and will walk away humming some sean-nós to themselves.
In the first act, a young Heaney, portrayed by newcomer Colm Seoighe, spends his days exploring Connemara, doing his chores, playing with friends and spending time with his father. It is from his father that Heaney learned how to master his own gift of song. Throughout the first act we watch him gradually building up his confidence and his talent so that by the time we enter the second act and meet a now middle-aged Heaney played by Mícheal O’Confhaola, he has mastered the art of performance.
O’Confhaola plays Heaney with an apt subtlety without much outward emotion but a distinct touch of melancholy. Each incarnation of Heaney is superbly cast. Despite not bearing much of a physical resemblance to each other or the real Heaney, each actor delivers several electrifying traditional songs that recreate and capture the enormity of Heaney’s talent very well.
The third act of the film shows Heaney living in New York. Now in his 60s, played by Macdara Ó Fátharta, he recounts elements of his life history to an American interviewer. As he grows older and weaker he desires to return to his homeland where he can reconcile himself with his past and younger self
Song of Granite will be a very important film this year and I highly recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in Irish culture. However, it may ask too much of its audience. Unless you are a die-hard trad music fan, the long sean-nós performances could be a bit of a workout for the attention span. Also, characters appear without much introduction and actors change with the passage of time, which is a tad confusing but not distractingly so. This is the story of a fragmented, tortured artist told in three fragmented parts. Song of Granite is a film that will sing to the heart and soul of any Irish person home or away.
G (See IFCO for details)
Song of Granite is released 8th December 2017