Irish Film Review: ‘Calm with Horses’ @ Toronto International Film Festival 2019 

 

Aoife O’Neill was at the Toronto International Film Festival 2019 and sent us on this review of Nick Rowland’s Calm with Horses.

 

One of a few Irish films that closed Toronto International Film Festival this year is that of Nick Rowland’s Calm with Horses; a film that was adapted by Joe Murtagh from Colin Barrett’s acclaimed collection of short stories. Calm with Horses premiered at the festival alongside an Irish Canadian co-production starring Dakota Fanning called Sweetness in the Belly, (also a book adaptation from Camilla Gibb’s book of the same name), as well as Neasa Hardiman’s film Sea Fever. It is clear that Ireland was definitely represented on the big screen in Toronto this year.

Calm with Horses tells the story of Douglas ‘Arm’ Armstrong, an ex-boxer, who has been adopted into the deadly Devers family. Used as a muscle man, particularly by Daimhin Devers (Barry Keoghan), he is treated like a lap dog doing the violent bidding for the family and he is also kept on a very short leash. At the centre of the film is the struggle of Arm and where his loyalty lies. Is he loyal to the adopted family that ‘protects’ him or to his actual family that he must protect? At first, the audience is led to believe that Arm should be hated and is a violent thug at heart, but then, as the story unfolds, we see the person behind the brutally-violent actions.

The catalyst of this thriller-crime drama is when Arm must choose to either kill a man for the Devers or provide money for the education of his five year-old autistic son, Jack. The viewer is thrown into the action of the film almost immediately, only discovering the motives behind the actions of the characters as the story reveals itself. The brutality and unyielding wrath of the Dever family illustrates clearly, the fact, that they will stop at nothing to maintain their power in the community, even at the expense of Arm.

Violent from the get go, this film is not for the faint-hearted. After seeing this film with a Canadian audience, it was almost amusing to hear the loud gasps and shock from audience members at the most violent scenes. Not that the violence is amusing but, Canadian audiences, I have found, are very vocal when watching films in the cinema.

With a similar vibe of RTÉ’s Love/Hate, Irish viewers, I think, will enjoy this thriller. Set in  rural Ireland, Calm with Horses puts a spin on the gangland drama usually set in Irish cities. Trained eyes may recognise some of the backdrop of the Irish countryside throughout the drama (filmed in both Galway and Clare).

The slow pace of the film reflects the lifestyle of the characters and the community they inhabit; their simple survival for money and opportunity while wanting a better life. The depiction of rural Irish life is true to form, where the community knows or think they know everything about you. The isolation and judgement one feels is shown particularly well as it affects the character of Ursula, in her desire to escape the judgemental town they live in. Ursula is condemned by the community as they accuse her of giving her son Jack his medical condition.

Despite the brutal violence in the film, the story is juxtaposed with moments of calm as the title suggests. As Arm tries to bond with his son, Jack, it is clear that he has not grasped the concept of Jack’s medical condition and diagnosis, unlike Jack’s mother, Ursula. Played by Niamh Algar, Ursula provides the voice of reason to Arm, trying to release the grasp the Dever family have over him.

Headed by a heavy Irish cast including outstanding performances from Barry Keoghan and Ned Dennehy (Peaky Blinders), as well as American born actor Cosmo Javis (Lady Macbeth) taking the lead role of Arm in the film. Calm with Horses is from the DMC Film production company. The production company, founded by Michael Fassbender and Conor McCaughan, and producer Daniel Emmerson developed the project with Film4 as Nick Rowland’s feature directorial debut.

Most importantly, it was nice to have the opportunity to watch an Irish film in Toronto on the big screen being so far from home. After supporting many different world cinemas throughout the festival, such as Latin America, Spain, France, Japan, India and Africa to name but a few, it was fantastic to get to experience this film with a very packed Canadian audience excited to see Ireland represented on screen.

 

Calm with Horses had its world premiere 8th September 2019 at the Toronto International Film Festival.

‎The Toronto International Film Festival 2019 took place 5–15 September 2019.

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Irish Film Review: Dark Lies the Island

DIR: Ian Fitzgibbon • WRI: Kevin Barry • DOP: Cathal Watters • ED: Stephen O’Connell • DES: Jeff Sherriff • PRO: Michael Garland • MUS: Stephen Rennicks • CAST: Peter Coonan, Moe Dunford, Charlie Murphy, Pat Shortt, Jana Moheiden

Dark Lies the Island is about a doomed love-rectangle in a small Irish town. Daddy Mannion (Pat Shortt) has the run of the place in Dromord. Every other business in town is a Mannion enterprise. But as his two sons (Moe Dunford and Peter Coonan) become jealous of his money and young wife Sara (Charlie Murphy), can the Mannions escape with their dignity intact? Inspired by characters from Kevin Barry’s short-story collection by the same name, Dark Lies the Island is a film about desperation and loneliness in a town that has a hold over all the characters.

Daddy Mannion may be the success of the town, but his personal life leaves much to be desired. His wife Sara, twenty years his junior, is bored sick at home with an atypical teenage daughter, played brilliantly by Jana Moheiden. Sara will do anything to punish Daddy for keeping her trapped in Dromord. To make matters worse, Daddy has two grown sons from his first marriage: failed businessman, Martin (Moe Dunford) and a recluse who runs shady businesses from his shack in the woods, Doggie (Peter Coonan). 

Most of the characters are desperate to get out of Dromord but do nothing to leave. Circumstances like debt, marriage, family business or agoraphobia keep people there, drive people to madness, and send them to the bottom of the lake. The irony of Doggie’s situation is highlighted when he says “I can leave whenever I want” but hasn’t set foot outside his shack in years. The feeling of being trapped is emphasised by cinematographer Cathal Watters, as he frames the characters in lots of close-ups, contrasting the expansive scenery outside. 

Something magical hangs over the film, as though Dromord has abstained from the rules of reality. The whole 90-minutes you’re waiting for the worst to happen to the Mannions, but you feel like absolutely anything could happen. The score by Stephen Rennicks (Room, Frank) enhances the mood – dark and playful at the same time, balancing light and dark.

I really wanted to like it more than I did. I’m a big Kevin Barry fan, so I was interested in seeing how Fitzgibbon would manage it. Barry has such a distinctive style that sadly didn’t translate to the screen. The magic of Kevin Barry is he puts you in someone’s head and makes you believe you’re there. But in the film, the focus shifts between so many different characters that it feels like a diluted version of his work. Barry perfectly balances humour and darkness in his short stories, and I’m not sure anyone can do him justice. 

With solid performances and gorgeous cinematography, it’s a shame the film doesn’t live up to the book. Barry’s tone is a hard one to pin down so I think audiences might have a hard time knowing how to feel. 

Aoife O’Ceallachain

87′ 

Dark Lies the Island  is released 18th October 2019

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Irish Film Review: Land Without God

DIR: Gerard Mannix Flynn, Maedhbh McMahon, Lotta Petronella • WRI/PRO: Gerard Mannix Flynn • DOP/ED: Lotta Petronella 

This documentary style film follows Gerard Mannix Flynn and his family’s traumatic experience within multiple institutions run by state and church in Ireland. 

The film gives light to the aftermath of violence many people have felt due to the power of church officials and how they ran certain institutions with an iron fist while preaching the word of god. Gerard revisits some of the institutions he was incarcerated within while breaking this up with interviews with his family and their experiences within the same or similar places. 

The story within aims to hit hard and it does deliver  as many people can relate to the story being told whether through themselves or their own family members. The fear within Gerard’s family members to this day is evident as they speak out and it is visible that their words are chosen with careful consideration with the aim of being able to tell what happened but also fear of retaliation even in modern-day Ireland. 

The only thing that took me away from the events being portrayed was the way in which the interviews were broken up. Gerard walking around the old institutions brought home the actual story being told but the break-up of the interviews with him in a room with only a chalkboard seemed unnecessary and brought me back to reality and not immersed in the events being told to me. The lack of narration did the same thing, but I have less quarrel with this while Gerard walked around the old buildings as sometimes you need the silence to appreciate the scene being shown to you. 

Overall, I feel obliged to thank Gerard and his family for being brave enough to speak out about what happened to them in relation to the physical, sexual and psychological abuse they suffered day in and day out when incarcerated within these places as children. The underlying theme of the story is that both violence and incarceration can only breed more violence and incarceration. This film is an important document that examines the legacy of institutional abuse by the Irish Church and State and poses the question of whether it is ever possible to exit the traumas it inflicted on the people whose lives it took away. 

Sean Dooley

74′ 

Land Without God is released 18th October 2019

Land Without God – Official Website

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Irish Film Review: Extra Ordinary

DIR: Mike Ahern, Enda Loughman • WRI: Mike Ahern, Demian Fox, Maeve Higgins, Enda Loughman DOP: James Mather • ED: Gavin Buckley • DES: Joe Fallover • PRO: Ailish Bracken, Yvonne Donohoe, Katie Holly, Mary McCarthy • MUS: George Brennan • CAST: Maeve Higgins, Barry Ward, Will Forte

That rare beast, the funny, Irish, comedy feature film is back again in the form of Extra Ordinary, which follows the supernatural adventures of Rose Dooley (Maeve Higgins), a psychic paranormal expert, who tries to pursue the ordinary life as a driving instructor since having inadvertently caused her father’s death many years before when the two of them tried to save a dog from a haunted pothole. You know how these things go.

But the ordinary life is not to be; local widower Martin Martin (Barry Ward) reaches out for help with his abusive dead spouse who won’t move on to the afterlife. Though Rose initially refuses to help him, his second call for help with his levitating, comatose daughter is one she feels she can’t refuse and sure she fancies Martin anyway. What they don’t know is that these coma/levitation shenanigans are the result of satanic dabblings by the local, evil, failed rock star, Christian Winter. Yes, Christian Winter not Chris De Burgh. He plans to sacrifice the virginal girl to Ostrogoth and revive his failed music career; as you do.

Directors Enda Loughman and Mike Ahern have created their own satanic alliance, ignoring the sacred rules of co-directing by not being siblings and it has paid off quite nicely with this clever, funny little film.  With a matter-of-fact attitude, blending the ordinary and banal with cheap shocks and fantastic absurdity, Extra Ordinary builds its humour gently before finally reaching hysterical proportions in its final scenes.

Holding these elements together are a superb cast, playing fun characters, who are as enjoyable in the more down-to-earth scenes before the supernatural shenanigans really kick in. Maeve Higgins’ central performance holds things together quite nicely with her innocent, yet mischievous, Rose Dooley but she is well aided by brilliant performances from all those involved, including some American fella, Will Forte, looking to make it big on the Emerald Isle.

A highly enjoyable romp for children of all ages, except for maybe the squeamish ones under ten.

Paul Farren

94′ 13″
15A (see IFCO for details)

Extra Ordinary is released 13th September 2019

Extra Ordinary – Official Website

 

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Irish Film Review: Prisoners of the Moon

DIR: Johnny Gogan • WRI: Johnny Gogan, Nick Snow • DOP: Eoin McLoughlin • DOP: Johnny Gogan, Fionn Rodgers • ED: Patrick O’Rourke • PRO: Johnny Gogan  • MUS: Steve Wickham • CAST: Jim Norton, Cathy Belton, Marian Quinn, Alan Devine

The human and environmental cost of technological progress is a spectre which haunts history, from medical trials without informed consent to conflict minerals in smartphones. It’s a difficult subject to grapple with, especially when a now mainstream technology or an historical feat of technological achievement has a murky past. 

In Johnny Gogan’s Prisoners of the Moon, we hear the words of Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp survivor, Jean Michel: ‘It was at Dora I realised how the pyramids were built’. It was in the underground tunnels of Dora that the German army’s V-1 and V-2 rockets were manufactured using slave labour. The book that Michel would go on to write about his time at Dora would eventually lead by chance to one of the V-1 and V-2’s chief engineers, Arthur Rudolph, being forced to leave the United States despite being given citizenship while working on the American space program.

After World War II, several engineers and rocket scientists who were based at Dora, including Wernher von Braun and Arthur Rudolph, were hired by the US government as part of Operation Paperclip. This docudrama examines this era, when US authorities decided to look the other way when considering the moral implications of recruiting former Nazi party members to work on their project to send a man to the moon. 

It takes as its focus Rudolph, whose work on the V-1 and V-2 rockets contributed to the success of Saturn V and the Apollo 11 launch. Using a mix of archive footage, interviews, and dramatic re-enactment, the film follows Rudolph’s early career in Germany, his time in Dora, his immigration to the US and work on the space program, his return to Germany by ‘mutual agreement’ after questions were raised in the ’80s, to his detention when attempting to enter Canada in the ’90s and the subsequent immigration hearing there. The film explores Rudolph’s culpability, what he may have seen or not seen at Dora, and speculates on the man and his conscience.

The re-enactment segments are where the film wavers. While well cast, there are some scenes that may have been better served by a documentary style rather than a dramatic one. The wealth of detail in the film, from archive footage to written and verbal accounts and expert analysis, suggests there would’ve been ample material to tell this story in documentary mode alone. Those elements of this deftly researched docudrama are its strongest and most engaging, raising challenging questions about the role of Nazi scientists in the achievement of the first human space flight.

Cathy Butler

75′ 29″
12A (see IFCO for details)
Prisoners of the Moon is released 28th June 2019

Prisoners of the Moon – Official Website

 

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Irish Film Review: Papi Chulo

DIR/WRI John Butler • DOP: Cathal Watters • ED: John O’Connor • PRO: Rebecca O’Flanagan, Robert Walpole • DES: Susannah Honey • MUS: John McPhillips • CAST: Matt Bomer, Alejandro Patiño, Elena Campbell-Martinez

John Butler, director of Handsome Devil (2016) and The Stag (2013), has proven his ability to explore the poignancy, volatility, and ultimate realness of human connections in his films. Papi Chulo, starring Matt Bomer and Alejandro Patiño, is certainly no exception. The film follows Sean (Bomer), a TV weatherman who finds himself struggling with loneliness and isolation in the sweltering urban landscape of Los Angeles. In an effort to combat this loneliness, Sean hires migrant worker Ernesto (Patiño), under the guise of requiring his labor, but it becomes apparent very quickly that Sean is not looking for an employee so much as he is looking for a friend.

The two certainly make an unlikely pair. Sean is young, white, gay, and apparently wealthy. Ernesto is middle-aged, Mexican, married with a wife and children, and doing everything he can to make ends meet. Through these characters, human differences and their ultimate limitations becomes one of the film’s main points of exploration. Sean and Ernesto clearly have very little in common, and their relationship is even more strained by the distinct language barrier between them. However, the two men manage to find ways around it, and the film reveals through its progression that what is truly important is the act of communication itself, the connection that forms between two people simply from being heard and acknowledged.

Barriers between people undoubtedly exist; barriers of race, class, age, and language. Butler skillfully demonstrates these barriers not only through the characters’ dialogue, but also through a clever motif of glass doors and windows. An early scene in the film, for instance, has Sean taking refuge behind the window of his car door in an effort to avoid a conversation with his coworker Susan (D’Arcy Carden). This motif also serves to initially separate Sean and Ernesto, as Sean is frequently shown viewing the older man through his car window or the glass door of his deck. These separations create tensions between characters, which in turn create opportunities for the film’s wry sense of humor. Butler perfectly captures the universal human experience of awkwardness, whether it comes from stretches of silence between two characters that lasts just a little too long for comfort, or from a character trying, and failing, to keep his composure under the scrutiny of his peers.

Papi Chulo is ultimately a film about human connections, about the shared experiences of loneliness, loss, and unlikely friendships. It is brilliantly acted, with wonderfully astute and down-to-earth performances by Bomer and Patiño, backed by Wendi McLendon-Covey, D’Arcy Carden, and Elena Campbell-Martinez. The urban setting of Los Angeles is particularly well-suited to the narrative, as Sean and Ernesto form an unlikely friendship in a city where genuine human connections can prove shallow more often than not, and where time can seem to stand still under an always-shining sun.

 Dakota Heveron

98 minutes
15A (see IFCO for details)
Papi Chulo is released 7th June 2019

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Irish Film Review: Float Like a Butterfly 

DIR/WRI: Carmel Winters • DOP: Michael Lavelle • ED: Julian Ulrichs • PRO: David Collins, Martina Niland • CAST: Hazel Doupe, Dara Devaney, Johnny Collins

Frances is a girl with aspirations larger than her family, and a temper hotter than the fires that they warm themselves around in the evenings, entertaining each other by singing haunting renditions of traditional Irish songs. Her universe is small, contained, and safe, until one fateful afternoon when local law enforcement delivers a sharp uppercut to her childhood, shaking Frances’ life to the core.

Written and directed by Carmel Winters (Snap, 2011), Float Like a Butterfly packs a punch with an emotional sting more potent than a killer bee. Set in 1960’s Ireland, Frances is just about the most unlikely protagonist imaginable, being at a societal disadvantage as a woman, let alone a young traveller woman. Gender roles are entirely inflexible, and the worst insult given to young men is “Don’t be acting like a girl”, forcing them to fight their way through life, as well as to recognise women as the inferior sex, therefore breeding toxic masculinity into the fibers of their community.

Struggling to establish her domain in this world that already has pre-established domesticated plans for her, Frances finds a kindred spirit in the stories of Mohammed Ali, as her father Michael would wax lyrical about him before his incarceration.  Emulating Ali, she knows that she’s the greatest, even before she actually is. Unfortunately, her father returns home from prison a changed man. He no longer shows her how to box, and teaches her little brother that it’s not tolerable for women to hit, but instead acceptable for them to be on the receiving end of a punch. But Frances has an indomitable spirit in comparison to the layabouts that live in the village and the drunks in her family, one that only a beating from a husband will tame. And with this reason in mind, Michael takes her and her younger brother, Patrick, on the road, but as their travels progress and she leaves the relative safety of her extended family behind, her world becomes desaturated, a shadow of its former vibrancy.

Hazel Doupe shines in her performance as Frances. Her steely blue gaze, laden with emotional narrative is accompanied by Dara Devaney’s portrayal of Michael Joyce. With a brash charm that wears thinner with the correlation of whiskey sunk down the hatch; he’s conflicted between admiration for Frances, and the inverse positions of authority established in his absence between his children, one which he often chooses to resolve with a quick hand and a sharp word. The music and score are evocative, joyful, and empowering; female dominated in both presence and lyrics, and the haunting lilt of the tin instruments is synonymous with both Ireland and its travelling community.

Float Like a Butterfly has a rare fervour, whereby it emotes both gut-wrenching sadness and a fighting spirit in one fell swoop. She’s about to choose the path not taken, but “there’s no wrong way when you’re on the right road.” Even if Frances wins this round, the fight is still far from over. Her boxing ring is one of sand, and pride is the prize.

Jemma Strain

www.ruledlines.com

100 minutes
15A (see IFCO for details)
Float Like a Butterfly is released 10th May 2019

 

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Irish Film Review: The Dig

DIR: Andy Tohill, Ryan Tohill • WRI: Stuart Drennan • DOP: Angus Mitchell • ED: Helen Sheridan • PRO: Brian J. Falconer • DES: Ashleigh Jeffers • MUS: James Everett • CAST: Francis Magee, Moe Dunford, Lorcan Cranitch, Emily Taaffe

Northern Irish directors, Ryan and Andy Tohill, invite us to delve deep into the mire that is The Dig, as a small community is ravaged by an unresolved murder, a family is torn apart, and the truth is attempting to climb out of its water logged grave.

Ronan Callaghan (Moe Dunford), a stain on the local community has come home, and judging from the dilapidated house that he returns to, coupled with James Everett’s effectively somber score, his homecoming is not a joyous one. We learn early on that he has recently been released from jail for the murder of a local girl, Niamh, a night that he was too black out drunk to remember. Despite having served his time, Ronan’s sentence is far from over, as Niamh’s father, Séan (Lorcan Cranitch), and sister, Roberta (Emily Taaffe), are mining for the truth on the bog that his family owns. Persecuted from every angle, he attempts to solve the mystery of the holes in his memory, as well as the guilt that filters through him like silt, and so he picks up the spade to help Séan and begins to dig deeper.

With more shades of grey than an E.L. James novel, but with actual depth, The Dig avoids straightforward character development like a pothole in the road. The narrative is gradually excavated as the film progresses, moving from almost pure visual storytelling, into unveiling strategies such as solely using the protagonist’s surname in an attempt to dehumanise him, evolving into the ponderous enigma that is the night in question. Stuart Drennan’s writing elegantly weaves Irish mythology into this murder mystery, as well as ties in a reference to the Old Croghan Man, a remarkably well-preserved Iron Age bog body found in Offaly in 2003. The use of earth tones and natural light mirror the land in which it is set, contrasting with the abnormality of the murderous act itself, as Angus Mitchell’s cinematography employs sparse, wide shots of the landscape, allowing us to bear witness to the magnitude of the job that Séan and Ronan have ahead of them.

Metaphor is integral to the plot, insisting that the viewer recognise clues and personality traits through the use of analogies and colour. Ronan is clearly the house to which he returns to, abandoned, decimated by locals, and previously coming apart at the seams with alcohol. The bog in which they search for Niamh’s body is peppered with holes, marked with red and blue flags, which cleverly hint to the conclusion. Except for the first one that Ronan encounters; a single white flag, a surrender, and an acceptance to whatever fate awaits him as he shovels his own war trench.

Although The Dig may not fulfil the plot-heavy murder mystery category that some people may hope for, the premise is both novel and consuming, as a murderer helps a grieving father search for that which he took from him. There is substance to be found in the pursuit as the Tohill’s have purposely devised a bleak visceral experience. Yet perhaps they should have stayed more in the realms of Seamus Heaney than Agatha Christie, as when they veer more towards the latter the plot becomes increasingly conventional and more shallow than their earlier narrative. Nevertheless, what they have created is a striated and near tangible experience rather than an affected whodunit.

Jemma Strain

www.ruledlines.com 

97 minutes
15A (see IFCO for details)
The Dig is released 26th April 2019

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