Stephen Porzio checks out Barry Monaghan’s comprehensive study of the films of contemporary, highly critically-appraised Irish director Lenny Abrahamson.
Barry Monaghan’s new book The Films of Lenny Abrahamson is the definitive exploration of perhaps Ireland’s finest director.
Analysing the filmmaker’s career from early shorts Mendel and 3 Joes all the way to Oscar-nominee Room, the scholarly essay-style work explores how Abrahamson managed to transcend the barriers of Irish and art-house cinema, garnering worldwide acclaim and profits. It then wraps up with a transcript of a conversation between Monaghan and the director.
The book’s biggest strength is its argument for Abrahamson as a true auteur figure. While the filmmaker has fluctuated between countries and genre, telling wildly different stories, Monaghan keenly points out recurring elements in his work.
He posits that Abrahamson’s breakout success could be down to the fact that many of our nation’s dramas which preceded him were explicitly dealing with lrish-specific stories. This made them less accessible worldwide, lowering their chance of big box-office returns. Monaghan argues that Abrahamson is more successful because his exploration of contemporary Irish issues is kept often as subtext, making them fiercely relevant here but capable of being understood abroad.
Adam and Paul and Garage are both dramas about how, during the Celtic Tiger, certain pockets of Irish life were left behind. However, lacking overt references to the boom, the former could equally be perceived as a warped fairytale and the latter a sad portrait of rural loneliness that could resonate with anyone. Similarly, What Richard Did is a drama examining notions of privilege set in Dublin’s southside rooted in true events. Yet, in making only implicit references to its social backdrop, its story still works outside of said context.
This also extends to his work outside Ireland. Frank serves as a demystification of the artistic process but doubles as a whacky comedy. Room is a film somewhat based on the infamous Fritzl case but told from the perspective of a child, making it also a coming-of-age story. By avoiding heavy references to true life, Abrahamson’s movies avoid polemical debate, instead favouring to immerse audiences in their characters’ worlds.
Monaghan also highlights how Abrahamson’s films all feature in someway or another a Beckettian exploration of the failures of language. They also each eschew traditional narratives, in favour of building characters – all of whom never fit generic archetypes.
The book is not geared for casual reading, feeling very academic. Thus, it is stuffed with references to other scholars. Occasionally, these can overwhelm the conversion about Abrahamson’s oeuvre. This is notable in the section on Frank. One wonders whether references to Jacques Lacan’s philosophy in discussing the Frank Sidebottom mask or harking back to the work of George Melies when exploring Domhnall Gleeson’s unreliable narrator are necessary. This is also heightened by the fact that the book excludes talk of Abrahamson’s notoriously hard to track down four-part series Prosperity (RTE please release that on DVD!), something fans of the director would rather be reading.
There is also a feeling it may have been too early to release a book about the filmmaker. This was written before the release of The Little Stranger, the director’s most interesting movie to date – an unsettling horror film which fits with all of Monaghan’s points about Abrahamson’s work but also failed to wield big profits. Meanwhile, with him set to adapt Sally Rooney’s novel Normal People for BBC, there is a sense Abrahamson has more fascinating work ahead of him.
Still, in terms of work to date, this is essential reading for die hard fans of Irish cinema, as well as those in a film theory course prepping an essay on any of Abrahamson’s movies.