Review of Irish Film @ DIFF 2019: When Hitchcock Met O’Casey

 

David Deignan checks out  Brian O’ Flaherty’s documentary When Hitchcock Met O’Casey,  which tells the fascinating story of Irish playwright Sean O’Casey and English filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock’s 1930 collaboration on one of the early British ‘talkies’ – an adaptation of O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock.


It’s not often that Sean O’Casey and Alfred Hitchcock are mentioned in the same sentence, let alone thought of as close collaborators. The latter, oft hailed as the ‘Master of Suspense’, is a household name; renowned as one of the most significant and influential filmmakers to have ever lived. The former was, and still is, a widely celebrated writer and memoirist whose work is synonymous with Dublin’s Abbey Theatre. The Abbey produced the three plays collectively recognized as O’Casey’s crowning achievement: The Shadow of a Gunman (1923), Juno and the Paycock (1924) and The Plough and the Stars (1926).

O’Casey emerged from Dublin’s poorest people; he was the first playwright of note to write about the experiences of the city’s working class, electrifying the Abbey stage – which was sustained in its early years by his work. By the end of the 1920s, with his art receiving international acclaim, O’Casey had moved to London where Alfred Hitchcock had already directed ten films, the majority of which were silent.

It was the London premiere of Juno and the Paycock, in 1925, which brought the pair together for an unlikely project. Hitchcock adored the play and approached O’Casey with a view to adapting it for the silver screen. The Dubliner gave the filmmaker his blessing and the resulting film, released in 1930, turned out be something of an anomaly; an oft-forgotten and rarely talked about footnote in the outstanding careers of the two men. This documentary by director Brian O’Flaherty sets out to tell the story behind this altogether strange production and assess its place in the canon of each artist’s work.

O’Flaherty’s film opens by contrasting the dichotomous backgrounds and upbringings of the two men. Through examining their early lives and careers, we learn about their totally different personalities and the documentary begins to hint that maybe – just maybe – the pair aren’t going to see eye to eye on every issue  that arises during the production of Juno. The documentary decides to act as a study of these two characters just as much as it focuses on the making of the film. Structurally, this approach works well. It serves to ground the audience in the lives of both Hitchcock and O’Casey, while contextualising the world to which the screen adaptation of Juno arrived.

The medium of cinema was still in its relative infancy, and Juno – which the doc states Hitchcock originally envisioned as a silent film – was produced during a period of great change, as sound-on-film was fast becoming the standard for motion pictures. As a result, Juno inadvertently became one of Britain’s first “talkies”. What’s so fascinating about this from a contemporary point of view is seeing Hitchcock who was still unfamiliar with this unheralded form of cinema and, like everyone else, had to learn the ropes.

O’Flaherty’s documentary does a brilliant job of depicting this side of the production, showing the great director getting to grips with the new technology and exploring how this presented inevitable problems for his shoot. The documentary has managed to obtain a great deal of archive footage as well as clips from the film and snippets of interviews with Hitchcock himself, which imbue these stories with an immediacy and intimacy, making them feel contemporary despite being almost a century old.

The stories of Juno’s production are really interesting, and the documentary is smart to intersperse the clips of Hitchcock – with his droll demeanour and wry sense of humour – throughout the film, with the director almost guiding us through the story of his project. The documentary also features a host of other engaging interviewees, the majority of whom are associated with O’Casey. These include Joe Mooney of the East Wall Historical Group and the writer’s daughter Shivaun, both of whom give valuable insight into the Dubliner’s life and, in the case of the latter especially, provide a sense about how he felt personally about Hitchcock and the eventual final version of Juno. Alongside the talking-head interviews and found footage, the documentary is punctuated by inserts of still drawings by Peter Marry.

As a fan of Juno, as well as both artists’ work, I can’t help but wonder whether the documentary would need an audience to be familiar with the play to fully appreciate this documentary. It wouldn’t be strictly necessary, but some of the production stories are undoubtedly helped by a knowledge of the source material.

The fact that Alfred Hitchcock and Sean O’Casey are so different, both as artists and as people, is what makes this story enticing. The documentary is at its strongest when it focuses on the interaction between the pair, as their lives and careers dovetailed momentarily, and there is part of me that wishes O’Flaherty had been able to focus more on their relationship and deliver a more personal account of their brief partnership.

Nevertheless, When Hitchcock Met O’Casey is a well researched and executed historical study of a truly enigmatic film and a fascinating examining of an oft-forgotten collaboration.




When Hitchcock Met O’Casey screened on 21st February 2019 as part of the Dublin International Film Festival (20th February – 3rd March).

 

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Short Film Review: Stephanie

David Deignan takes a look at Fergal Costello’s short horror film Stephanie starring Moe Dunford. 

Moe Dunford must be the busiest actor in Ireland right now. He has five feature films releasing this year – including a magnetic turn in Paddy Breathnach’s recent Rosie – in addition to significant parts in two TV series and, now, the leading role in Stephanie, the frenetic new horror short from writer/director Fergal Costello.

Stephanie is an ambitious, deliberately ambiguous story which wrenches the viewer by the collar and refuses to let go from the first frame to the last. The narrative begins with Joe (Dunford) determinately struggling to protect the titular character, portrayed by Aoife Spratt, from the murderous intentions of Walsh (Joe Rooney). As tensions quickly escalate between the trio, it soon becomes clear that the secretive Stephanie is not all that she seems to be.

The abrupt opening quickly cultivates a tantalising sense of mystery: it doesn’t waste a second on exposition, instead preferring to drop the viewer without warning straight into the middle of the conflict. Violence looms like an ugly shadow throughout the opening sequences, threatening to burst to the fore at any moment. Costello’s clever script subtly balances the reveal of important information with intentional misdirection early on.

The film clocks in at just under 9 minutes in length and is impressively shot in one uninterrupted take. Costello’s staging is confident and plays out seamlessly while Philip Blake and Padraic Conaty deserve props for their work on the cinematography. The camera weaves its way dynamically around the characters on screen, reacting imaginatively to plot developments as they play out. Its eye is often trained on Dunford and he doesn’t miss a beat, ensuring that the internal rhythm plays out smoothly.

Mark Murphy’s pulsating musical score works well, plunging and escalating sharply as the action does. It comes to a crescendo in the third act, as the intensity increases, and contributes importantly to the film’s all-action finale.

The narrative’s initial hook is enticing and the opening minutes deftly draw the viewer into the story, with the early exchanges engrossing. But it falters somewhat in its second half, when it runs out of reveals and the execution of a key sequence becomes a bit messy, the film becoming caught up in its own franticity. The ambition on show, however, is undoubtedly admirable and the overall technical prowess on show serves to smooth over the plot’s weak points.

Stephanie feels like a sequence cut from a larger concept. While this is a testament to the world being built by Costello and crew, it also stops the story from fully resonating in its current form. It’s a shame – considering how effectively it starts – but this is still an enjoyable, stylishly executed short that’s well worth watching. And, with the director’s website listing his next project as a debut feature currently called Untitled Awesome Horror Film, I’d hope to see more of this story on screen soon. Lord knows Dunford could use the work.

 

fergalcostellofilm.com

Fergal Costello on Vimeo

 

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Irish Film Review: Rosie

DIR: Paddy Breathnach • WRI: Roddy Doyle • DOP: Cathal Watters • ED: Úna Ní Dhonghaíle • DES: Mark Kelly • PRO: Juliette Bonass, Rory Gilmartin, Emma Norton • MUS: Stephen Rennicks • CAST: Sarah Greene, Moe Dunford, Ellie O’Halloran

Paddy Breathnach’s Rosie, directed from a script by Roddy Doyle, is difficult to try and pigeonhole. It’s at once an authentic family drama, a heart-wrenchingly intimate character study and a warped sort of road film, with a tight focus on displacement, space and identity which is reminiscent of the French cinematic tradition. Crucially, though, with Irish people currently suffering in the midst of an ever-worsening housing crisis, Rosie is timely, well executed and – more than anything else – important.

The narrative follows Rosie (Sarah Greene) and her partner John Paul (Moe Dunford) as they suddenly find themselves homeless and in a desperate struggle to secure somewhere safe for themselves and their four children to stay.  We’re introduced to the characters as they try to go about their daily lives while living out of their car. John Paul is under immense pressure at work and it falls to Rosie to juggle looking after the kids during the day with simultaneously trying to locate beds for the night.

Greene is magnetic in the titular role, carrying a huge amount of the film’s emotional weight on her shoulders. The intensity of Rosie’s living situation, crammed into close quarters with her family, means that she’s barely able to find a private moment for herself. She’s constantly wearing a brave face, trying to remain steadfast and optimistic in front of the children, while a wave of quiet desperation rides right beneath the surface. Greene’s performance is subtle but greatly affecting – a slow sigh or gentle curl of a lip can speak volumes about Rosie’s condition and her character. She shares a crackling chemistry with the steadfast John Paul, who Dunford deftly imbues with a tenderness and fragility which belie his unflinching exterior.

The film challenges the stereotypical images surrounding homelessness and explores the extent to which the havoc wreaked by this housing crisis is crossing social class borders. Open houses are thronged with prospective buyers while spare hotel vacancies are quickly filled with displaced families seeking shelter. It is painfully evident that these hotels, generous as they are, can’t be homes, with children shushed and confined to their rooms for fear of disturbing regular guests. It is quietly moving to see the family’s belongings – regular household items from teddy bears to fairy liquid bottles – crammed into black refuse sacks in the back of their car. Doyle’s screenplay squares up to the stigma that comes hand in hand with the label ‘rough sleeper’. “We’re not rough anything” insists the eponym at the mere mention of the term.

Rosie and John Paul are both desperate to hide the harsh realities of their situation from the people around them, terrified of what they’ll think, and their need to remain unseen comes into conflict with their desire to do what’s best for their family.

Doyle began to write the film after hearing an interview with a woman in a similar situation. He recalls being particularly struck by her admission that her partner worked a 9-5 job during the day and was still forced to sleep rough at night. This dichotomy is one that he purposely keeps in focus throughout the story.

The script neatly side-steps convention and embraces a healthy amount of ambiguity, which really works in the film’s favour. The witty, minimalistic dialogue is recognisably Doyle’s and helps to inject great warmth into Rosie’s otherwise cold world. Particular praise must be reserved for his handling of the film’s minor characters, whom he smartly steers away from cliché territory.

Breathnach’s direction is confident and assured. He has a masterful handle on the story and capably guides the audience through the use of careful framing. Scenes inside the car feel suitably cramped and help to convey the growing unrest of its inhabitants. In contrast, exterior shots are often wide and empty, crafting a tangible sense of hopelessness. Rosie is the film’s focus and the camera intimately hones in on her face in a way that may have been invasive in the hands of a less accomplished filmmaker. Visually Breathnach has a firm command of imagery and symbolism, using repetition to stirring effect.

He has also coaxed strong performances from his younger cast members, most of whom are first-time actors. Darragh McKenzie shines as Rosie’s son Alfie, with one particularly turbulent scene in the final third leaving a lasting impression.

The film is steeped in realism and the world on-screen feels absolutely authentic. Shot on the streets of Dublin, its no-frills approach helps to make the drama feel like a documentary at times. We open with the sound of news broadcasters describing the severity of the housing crisis, blurring the lines between fact and fiction right off the bat. The score is minimalistic but used to great effect.

Rosie is a beautiful film which is bound to make audiences angry. Hiding just behind its lovable characters is a palatable undercurrent of rage, a pent-up anger at the very real plight that good people – men, women and children – are being put through on a daily basis in this country. This is a poignant story that feels intensely personal. Sadly, it’s also urgently political.

David Deignan

82 minutes
12A (see IFCO for details)
Rosie is released 12th October 2018

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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