DIR/WRI: Alan Mulligan • PRO: Taine King, Alan Mulligan, Anthony Mulligan, Tim Palmer • DOP: Daniel Sorin Balteanu • ED: Alan Mulligan, Tim Palmer, Daniel Sorin Balteanu • DES: Lilla Nurie • CAST: Laurence O’Fuarain, Joanne Brennan, Des Carney
In Alan Mulligan’s The Limit Of, we are introduced to our lead character James, a distant, meticulous figure, as he runs through Dublin at night, headphones in, ignoring all around him. Immediately, the film’s visuals work hard and effectively to situate James within the wider context of 21st century, modernizing Dublin as we see him run along the Samuel Beckett Bridge and by other recognizable modern landmarks and architecture. And soon, as we cut to the next day when James’ day job is revealed to us, we can see why. James is a banker and the film is, to a certain extent, a kind of state of the nation (or at least state of the city) piece.
James witnesses first-hand the cruelty of his employers to a stranger and then to a loved one. He sits through meetings whose participants could have been side characters in Glengarry Glen Ross, except that their seediness and vile intentions would have overshadowed that film’s main cast.
Indeed, characterization in this film can be somewhat lacking. The bankers in this film, with two exceptions, are just evil. Aside from James himself, characters are generally one-note and their motivations simplistic. In the case of the bankers though, their uncomplicated evil does make it clear the stance this film is taking on the state of 21st century Ireland: banks exert an inordinate amount of control on the lives of Irish people, especially on the sick, elderly, and otherwise vulnerable, and the manner in which control is exerted is entirely avaricious. It is not a nuanced take on the state of modern Ireland, but an admirably bitter diatribe against the impersonal state of modern financial institutions, though it is perhaps a bit undercut by the cartoony, villainous dialogue of characters who run those institutions.
Dialogue and the relationships among the film’s small cast of characters in general are often an issue in this film, which does not aid in the believability of these characters or their plight. In particular, a sexual subplot involving James which features awkward dialogue with a co-worker and lingering shots of him staring at her groin feels stilted at best and a bit exploitative at worst. That’s not to say that these actors don’t give strong performances. Special praise must go to Sonya O’Donoghue who gives a wonderful performance in the brief time she is in the film. The issue is just that the relationships between characters are not compelling or heartfelt enough to carry the film.
To uncover the real strength of the film we must turn back to its visuals. There’s a coldness to them. We do not often see the Georgian centre of Dublin, but instead see rectangular architecture and cold fluorescent lights. Inside James’ work place, there’s a bleak impersonality to everything around him. Characters are framed against quasi-symmetrical backdrops, often with vertical lines and barriers like thin doorways or bland posters hanging between them, implying a forced distance between people as demanded by institutions that value impersonal control. Interestingly though, these barriers are almost never centred just right. Mulligan seems to subtly emphasize the “quasi” in “quasi-symmetrical” when it comes to his compositions. In these slightly off-kilter visuals, the movie at first appears to be displaying a clear narrative about control, and then appears, upon closer inspection, to subtly resist it. Even as we see overhead shots outside the office building, where we follow the Liffey past rows of impersonal, rectangular buildings, the staid sameness of these buildings actually serves to emphasize the subtle curvature of the river, which resists that sameness. It’s almost as if there is something inherently chaotic here that upsets this narrative of impersonality and control.
These visuals work well to elucidate the film’s themes. As the events of the film progress and James begins to viscerally encounter and resist the injustice of his employer, such visuals remain the most powerful weapon in Mulligan’s arsenal to make his examination of the limits of cold calculation and, eventually, the seeming impossibility of clear narratives of control and justice strike home. I’ll be thrilled to see when Mulligan’s keen visual eye gets married to a script and characters that complement this skill.
15A (see IFCO for details)
The Limit of is released 5th April 2019