Redemption of a Rogue Review: Seán Crosson reviews Philip Doherty’s biblical black comedy about a prodigal son returning to his hometown to seek salvation for his sins.
It is rare and perhaps unexpected that the opening credit for a feature film would refer to Cavan County Council, or indeed any county council in Ireland. Rarer still is that the film concerned goes on to receive two major awards – Best Irish First Feature and Best Irish Film – at its world première, held during the Galway Film Fleadh. Yet in every respect Redemption of a Rogue is a remarkable film that captures and celebrates its place of origin in a manner rarely encountered in Irish cinema. Through its characters, diction, locations and surreal narrative, Cavan native Philip Doherty’s debut production renders the Breffni county as never encountered before in the cinema yet nonetheless strangely and engagingly familiar to those of us from that part of the world.
Seldom has small town and rural Irish life been rendered as convincingly or as engagingly on film. From the centrality of the local GAA club, to family conflict, religion and local communal tensions, many of the themes Doherty explores have featured in Irish film before. However, Doherty engages with all of these issues with innovative and sometimes hilarious black humour. The premise here concerns a local man – Jimmy Cullen (Aaron Monaghan) – who has left his village in disgrace and returns seven years later to visit his dying father. However, his father dies very shortly after his return following a struggle with Cullen. As the coffin is being carried out of the house, the local solicitor arrives with the father’s will to inform Cullen and his brother Damien (Kieran Roche) that according to the will his father cannot be buried on a day when it rains; otherwise, they will both be disinherited with the money bequeathed to the local gun club. The remainder of the film recounts the attempts of Jimmy and others in the town to come to terms with both the inclement weather and a series of legacies from the past that are revived with Jimmy’s return.
There are echoes in Redemption of classic Westerns, Coen Brothers productions, Finnish auteur Aki Kaurismäki’s work, and closer to home, the work of both Martin and John Michael McDonagh. One is also reminded of Neil Jordan’s more surreal moments – particularly The Butcher Boy – and Jordan’s collaborator Pat McCabe features prominently both as a narrator and musician. Indeed, music is a critical component of the film, often surprisingly and imaginatively incorporated into the diegesis (in a manner reminiscent of some Kaurismäki’s finest moments), including sequences of buskers performing on the street of the Cullen’s village, providing a further level of commentary on the often surreal events depicted.
Doherty is a graduate of NUI Galway’s MA in Drama and Theatre Studies and a two-time winner of RTÉ’s PJ O’Connor Radio drama Award – and there are borrowings from Irish theatre here also, particularly Beckett’s work evident in the tortured existential crisis of the central protagonist. However, Redemption of a Rogue neither labours nor suffers in relation to these precursors: Doherty has shaped a unique and exhilarating work that is one of the most accomplished Irish films in recent years.
Redemption of a Rogue screened as part of the Galway Film Fleadh 2020 (7-12 July).