DIR: Katrina Costello
Katrina Costello’s The Silver Branch is plainly gorgeous. As she examines farmer and poet Patrick McCormack’s life on his farm in the Burren, she shows her eye for framing natural beauty. She sits her viewers by the side of a dying cow, forcing us straight into empathy with it and its caretakers. She places us in torrential rain which obscures the surrounding landscape and highlights McCormack’s hay-collecting efforts in a baroque-like manner. The camera examines in slow motion predatory hawks as well as rural funeral marches and in fast-forward we see flowers bloom before our eyes. These visuals alone merit an attentive watch.
What elevates this film, however, is its extraordinary ability to pair its visuals with Patrick McCormack’s narration. As the film displays his daily work on the farm, his legal struggles to protect the Burren, his despair as many of his children leave for America, and the environment he calls home, Patrick unveils the wisdom he has gained from his deep connection with the land. We are placed in this world with Costello to guide us visually, McCormack to guide us verbally, and James Dornan to blend the two together through his beautiful score.
It is when Costello’s imagery imbues McCormack’s words with greater meaning and vice-versa that the film is able to find a truly unique means of expression. The film often imbues a single image with multiple, contradictory-yet-compatible meanings by virtue of the cinematography and McCormack’s reflections. A predatory hawk becomes associated with both a threatening, encroaching form of modernity and with a sense of comfort for the poet who fights this encroachment. A rainstorm can be a symbol of renewal as well as fragility for him. These universal themes, drawn out by McCormack’s rootedness with the land he tends, are the film’s great achievement.
Though some visuals work better than others (images of boxers in a ring layered over court proceedings are a bit on the nose), the movie is consistently able to blend together McCormack’s narration and poetry with a visual examination of The Burren in a way that places this particular human experience within what McCormack calls the “web of nature,” revealing our own fragile, yet important place in the natural world, a world that we are not separate from, but one that we are inextricably a part of. The film gets at these insights by digging into the reciprocal process between human and non-human elements of this web. The film’s poetry, visuals, and score combine to show us how sitting at the side of a dying cow can help us to discern some part of our uncertain place in this massive “web” and how that discernment informs how we interact with our landscape. In the mists that so frequently border sweeping shots of the farm, Costello and McCormack let us see our own ephemerality as well as the responsibility placed on us by our own temporary nature.
That this film illustrates this reciprocity so well does it credit and, due to this achievement, the Irish film community should anticipate whatever Costello produces next.