Review: Shooting for Socrates


Robert J.E. Simpson was at this year’s Belfast Film Festival (16 -25 April) and had a chance to see Shooting for Socrates, which takes audiences back to the heady days of Mexico 1986 when Northern Ireland met the mighty Brazil in the World Cup finals. The film went on general release in Northern Ireland and selected cinemas in Ireland from 5th June.


This year’s Belfast Film Festival has offered a healthy selection of home-grown fare, with local films opening and closing proceedings. And they’ve squeezed in a star-studded gala event in the vast cavern of the Waterfront Hall for footballing feature Shooting for Socrates.

We’re fond of our image as underdogs, here in NI. We love the idea that we have to fight to get anywhere and when we’re beat we’re telling others that we tried. In that context comes the story of the 1986 Football World Cup squad from Northern Ireland – an unlikely collection of local lads making their mark, who defy expectation and find themselves in the finals and a legendary match against the unflappable Brazil.

If you’re one of us you’ll know the line before you know the story “We’re not Brazil, we’re Northern Ireland!” and you may have seen the slogan daubed over a mural or two. Even with my luddite knowledge of football I am familiar with the chant and the aspirational thrust of ‘We didn’t win the World Cup, but we got to play in the finals’. In the following 19 years this wee country has failed to replicate that near-success.

And so director James Erskine teamed up with local playwright Marie Jones to bring the tale to the big screen. Perhaps hoping for a Cool Runnings-type success, the narrative is presented as a broad comedy, gathering a group of boisterous footballers for an unlikely place on the global stage.

The audience at the premiere laughed haughtily, spurred on by the rousing on-stage prelude hosted by critic Brian Henry Martin, which saw several stars of the film, local broadcasting icon Jackie Fullerton and most of the surviving members of the 1986 Northern Irish World Cup squad hoisting aloft the actual World Cup – a privilege denied following their disastrous Mexican campaign. If one was to buy the hype of the evening, Shooting for Socrates is another smash hit. But the gathering together of so many football supporters and the first ever Irish appearance of the World Cup, the presence of some local legends, and overwhelming sense of national pride does tend to cloud judgement. Hype hides all manner of sins.


Jackie Fullerton reunited with most of the 1986 Northern Irish World Cup squad

Jackie Fullerton reunited with most of the 1986 Northern Irish World Cup squad at the Belfast premiere of Shooting for Socrates.


Socrates gives us Northern Ireland in the 1980s. A desolate place, with rioting and army presence on the streets. The full force of the Troubles provides a contrast to the unification and peace of the football scenes. In this instance its unfortunate that Belfast has changed so much in the ensuing years. Some archive footage of the period is combined with contemporary scenes – scenes which lay bare the modern city – PVC doors, redeveloped streets, change murals, an empty and forlorn Harland and Wolff, a reshaped Belfast waterfront. To the outsider, fine (which of course director Erskine is), but to those of us from here, it lacks authenticity – as alien as the prospect of Northern Ireland achieving a World Cup win. Action moves between southern Ireland, Northern Ireland, England, New Mexico and Mexico. Frequent onscreen captions remind us just how confusing the action change is.

John Hannah plays Belfast-born manager Billy Bingham with Hannah’s Scottish accent. No attempt is made at veracity – he doesn’t look like or sound like him. So Bingham’s identification as a local lad throughout don’t fit (and even I as a non-football fan remember him and his strange hybrid tones and jolly appearance). One wonders if Erskine had somehow confused Bingham with Jack Charlton – the Englishman who managed the Republic of Ireland team during the same period?

The team themselves are played with a comedy shtick that wouldn’t go amiss in a lacklustre Britcom of the 1970s. When emotion threatens to step in, mirth and drinking seem to be the only solution: the sudden death of one player’s mother should offer a warm embrace, some team tenderness, instead it’s a pub session and no pay-off. There’s also two over-the-top fans who screech their way to Mexico – seemingly the only two Northern Irish fans to make the pilgrimage. Well, them and Jackie Fullerton…


Jackie Fullerton interviews Conleth Hill at the Belfast premiere of Shooting for Socrates











Jackie Fullerton interviews Conleth Hill at the Belfast premiere of Shooting for Socrates


Conleth Hill channels Jackie Fullerton as an over-the-top, rather camp, object of ridicule. Fullerton’s presence at the screening does rather suggest he’s in on the act. But this is Fullerton as pantomime – ‘Jackie Full-of-himself’ as one wag suggests. He’s drinking, smoking, and helicopter-riding his way into every scene, becoming an intricate part of the Northern Irish propaganda wagon. Hill does steal all the laughs as the broadcaster, but the portrayal does suggest that maybe the rest of the cast needed to be more exaggerated too.

The titular Socrates, a player for Brazil, is a philosophical bundle of nonsense and good looks.

The action is confusing, particularly to those who have no knowledge of the story or of the game itself. The direction is hit and miss. The football scenes themselves lack any tension or drama. We see Bingham teaching his squad to keep the ball in play among themselves so if the Brazilians can’t get the ball, they can’t score – and yet then we see the ball being given away with ease during the actual matches – matches during which there is very little coverage of crowd extras.

In between the silliness a rather tender story is played out back in Belfast between a father (Richard Dormer) and his nine-year old son, Tommy (the promising newcomer Art Parkinson). It is a story of understanding the conflict in Northern Ireland and the power of sport, but also of growing up and family. They move through troubled East Belfast and the stark landscape of Harland and Wolff’s cranes Samson and Goliath. These sequences are superior, handled with care and attention and some fine photography. As Tommy watches the game and becomes emotionally entangled with the fate of the team, he represents us back home, and it’s here the film’s heart lies (as evidenced by use of Parkinson and Dormer on current advertising materials). But as lovely as their story and performances are, they belong to an entirely different film and are secondary to the football squad’s antics.

Women are under-represented in the film. Bronagh Gallagher gives a fine-but-brief turn as Tommy’s mother. Lorraine Sass is Billy Bingham’s wife – supporting and mentoring her husband, but a little cold. The other women barely get a line or two of dialogue each, with one Mexican football fan reduced to a position of not understanding the Northern Irish fans. It seems to be arguing a view of women in football – they don’t understand it (Bronagh Gallagher’s character can’t wait to get out of the house while her family watch it on TV, though she does save Tommy a place in a club so they can watch the final together).

Praise though for the contemporary score and soundtrack including music by Snow Patrol, Wonder Villains and A Plastic Rose. It is fresh and vibrant, giving poignancy and power which almost drive through the cracks in the film itself.


Conleth Hill, Marie Jones, James Erskine at the Belfast premiere of Shooting for Socrates

L to R: Conleth Hill,  Paul Kennedy, Art Parkinson, Marie Jones, James Erskine at the Belfast premiere of Shooting for Socrates


It’s likely that those without a knowledge of football, or Northern Ireland, will really ‘get’ Shooting for Socrates. It is an indulgence in celebrating runner-up status – the team look so disappointed it becomes impossible to buy the sentiment that the joy of the game is what should be celebrated. It’s a fusion of talents and an idea of a story that ultimately don’t work. A failed attempt at embracing failure.


Robert J.E. Simpson blogs about the arts on A Cultural Crisis 




David Keating Interview

Wake Wood

With the release of ‘Wake Wood’ today in Irish cinemas, Robert J.E. Simpson talks to the film’s director David Keating.

At what stage did Hammer become involved in the production, and how did that change things for you?

We got involved with Hammer maybe 8 or 9 months before we shot the film. In many ways it was a good match because we were already making what some people might regard as a modern style Hammer film. I think without Hammer the film might have been a little crazier, they were probably something of a sobering influence — am not saying this is either good or bad, just a little different.

We had money from Sweden which meant we had to spend money there so we came up with a plan which meant we did our main shoot in Ireland and then after doing a first cut of the film we were able to go to Sweden and do a certain amount of stuff that we always knew we’d need, plus things I wanted to do a little differently, and then a few new ideas too.I know a lot of directors and producers always try to allow for another small shoot during post, if you can figure a way of doing it it’s a huge help.

According to local press reports production was about to start in the spring of 2008. What prompted the filming to be pushed back to the winter at such a late stage? Were those last minute changes a big problem for you?

Things have a habit of changing. You have to somehow manage to be extremely prepared and very flexible. The shoot was cancelled when we were about 2 weeks from principal photography. That was tough. My producers were in Dublin and we had a grim phone call and then I went to break the news to the team. Not the happiest moment of my life telling people we’re all out of work. I mean they would have been absolutely entitled to be pissed off, but they were very cool, very supportive, very considerate. So we put it all back together and started to shoot about 4 months later.

You shot the film in HD video? Was there an aesthetic or budgetary reason why you chose to film on video rather than film?

On a film production the decisions on how you spend your money are essentially creative decisions. I felt it was more important to put our money in front of the lens. We shot on quite an old HD system, the Sony 900. But I think Wake Wood looks good and this is down to Chris Maris being a fine DOP and also the exceptional grading job and post-production support we had in Berlin. I think too much emphasis is put on format these days. I’d settle any day for less image resolution and more time with a first rate colorist. We obsess about all this stuff because it’s significant but for an audience it doesn’t compare in importance to story and performance, not even close.

Were there any other complications on set that you can talk about?

We only had complications. We had to shoot a bovine caesarian section and make it look realistic. Try killing someone with a huge bull for a complication. We had to shoot out all our interiors first due to scheduling issues which meant we had no weather cover and got our asses frozen and drowned later in the shoot. The night we shot the big scene at the wind turbine with Eva and Ella our equipment couldn’t handle the ridiculous wind and driving rain.

Nine-year old Ella Connolly plays the central character of Alice. Can you discuss your experiences of working with such a young actor? Some of the sequences I watched being filmed were rather brutal and frightening. Did it concern you exposing a young mind to those ideas and actions?

She’d never really done any acting or stage classes or anything,  which may have been an advantage. She’s quite a strict young lady when it comes to punching and blocking [Ella is a practitioner of Taekwondo] but she was also extremely squeamish when it came to blood and weird stuff so I had to be very careful about that. Ella’s mum, Fiona Bergin, was a big help because I knew that if she said Ella was ok with something then we were on pretty safe ground. I was concerned that Ella might do stuff she wasn’t happy with just to please me and in one way that’s great but you have to be really careful with this not only for moral reasons which would be enough, but also very practical reasons too. It was a challenge, but an interesting one.

During filming I could see you and DOP Chris Maris had a very close working relationship. How important was that, and to what extent do each of you influence the visual aspects of the film?

Chris combines a funny mix of being technically very capable with a real art school kind of sensibility. We had a common language when it came to shot framing as I think we have quite similar taste, and he didn’t seem to mind me being a Nazi about the colour palette. Although that was probably less of a headache for him than it was for the art department. It was funny, I had done miles and miles of storyboards that I had up all over our offices and in the beginning I kept trying to get Chris to engage with me on the boards and discuss the decisions I was making and for a while it seemed like he wasn’t listening — but then I realised it was his way of getting himself into the whole thing and he really was thinking very hard about everything and was very serious about his preparation and then we got on great. He’s very good. The storyboarding thing I’m a big fan of but you can’t let it stop you being flexible when you’re shooting.


Report from the set of 'Wake Wood'

Wake Wood On Set

All images © 2011 Robert JE Simpson, All Rights Reserved.

Robert J.E. Simpson reports from the set of Wake Wood as Hammer comes to town.

It is October 2008. Following a journey of several buses and several hours I find myself standing on the outskirts of a clearing in a wood on the Donegal side of Pettigo – the real-life Puckoon. Night has fallen early, and there is an icy chill to the air. Only the glare from the filming lights, the red glow from an almighty bonfire, and the roadside presence of a couple of fellows with walkie-talkies belies the presence of the film crew currently engaged in one of the most eagerly anticipated horror films of the last 30 years.

Deep in the Irish countryside, director David Keating is helming the first theatrical feature film for legendary British brand, Hammer Films, since 1979. Hammer themselves are no strangers to the island, having made a number of shorts and two features here during the 1950s and 60s, but this is the first time they’ve brought their unique brand of horror to the island. Day-to-day production duties are being helmed by Dublin-based company Fantastic Films. Needless to say, geek that I am, I’m ridiculously pleased to be a first-hand witness to proceedings – spurred on by having spent the bus-ride over reading through my copy of the script.

Ubiquitous character-actor Timothy Spall is heading a group of ‘villagers’ in a strange pagan ritual under the guidance of Keating. Young Ella Connolly – playing the ten-year-old onscreen daughter of Aidan Gillen and Eva Birthistle – is being kept warm in the biting chill with heavy blankets. It’s a daunting and terrifying scene.

Wake Wood On Set

Soon DOP Chris Maris has his camera mounted on top of a gigantic stepladder, focusing all the attention on Eva Birthistle, co-star of Wake Wood, as she is repeatedly dragged across the undergrowth, through the leaves and down into the belly of the earth itself. The minutes quickly become an hour and I feel the pain of the cast as they are physically exhausted by the process. Eva is on course to joining the likes of Hazel Court, Barbara Shelley and Ingrid Pitt as one of Hammer’s leading ladies and, like her predecessors, is earning every moment of screen time.

This is a close-knit production, with every penny of the €2.5 million budget being used to the full. I’m struck by this repeatedly during the filming, never more than when , a few days later, we’re standing in the middle of an old run-down farmhouse somewhere near the Irish border. With filming moving to the upstairs of the old house, producer John McDonnell is inspecting the large iron supports that had to be installed to prevent the upper floor from collapsing. On a big-budget horror, I imagine they’d have built this set in studio, but the team here have gone for authentic, aged Irish locations. No space is wasted, with everything a few minutes drive away from the base at the Pettigo Inn, and each location doubling or tripling up. This isn’t that far removed from the way that the Hammer films of old were made, and something of that ‘family feel’ emanates from the crew. Even when tensions are fraught as filming risks overrunning, there’s still a good sense of camaraderie from the crew.

There’s an eerie silence and that particular drizzle that fills the countryside air round here. Even during the daytime shoots, the pagan ‘other’ of the fictional Wake Wood can be felt on set, aided no doubt by the prop department’s strange ‘instruments’, which are a permanent presence. Wandering around Pettigo itself during a break in filming one morning, I find a large section of the town is run-down and boarded up, only a short stroll from the heart of the village. It’s a familiar enough sight in Irish towns, but serves to give the village a ‘ghost town’ edge suitable for a horror film.

During the last week of October we’ve moved down to Dublin for the crucial opening scenes of the film, including the brutal sequences that take Alice (Ella Connolly) from her parents. Once again Eva and Aidan earn their crust as they stand in Deansgrange Cemetery in freezing temperatures, being repeatedly soaked by a huge rain machine. There’s sinister work afoot, but no horror film worth its salt would be complete without a gothic graveyard sequence, and this one sports a fantastic corpse that easily turns the stomach of us non-actors.

The week is peppered with unusual incidents including an unexpected snowfall that prompts some rescheduling and rewriting before the production wraps appropriately enough on Halloween, with much of the morning spent by the canals amid a constructed traffic jam. Pedestrians wander by, unaware that cinematic history is being created beside them.

Wake Wood On Set


The Fantasist

thefantasist1Director Robin Hardy will forever be associated with just one film, the 1973 thriller The Wicker Man – a film which wears on its sleeve a distrust of Christianity and a gleeful indulgence in sexual liberations and freedoms. In the thirty-five years that have passed Hardy has spent much of that time in the shadow of The Wicker Man, spending six years attempting to get the film a distribution deal in the US, and many more working on a sequel to the project in various guises. At the time of writing, Hardy has published a novel Cowboys for Christ (Luath Press, 2006) which serves as the basis for the screenplay for his re-imagining of The Wicker Man, now due to go into production with Christopher Lee in the lead sometime in 2008. Again, paganism and Christianity are brought face to face in a story which seizes upon the contradictions and cracks in both.

Between The Wicker Man-based projects, Hardy completed one other feature film, the intriguing sex-thriller The Fantasist, a film which was derided by the Irish press at the time of production and release in 1986, and which The Wicker Man fans simply mourn as being inferior. To appreciate The Fantasist, one has to look back to The Wicker Man, and to the politics in Irish cinema present in the 1980s – only then can this curio of modern Irish cinema really blossom.

Robin Hardy originally purchased the rights to Patrick McGinley’s novel Goosefoot in 1983 along with Andy Summers (the guitarist in The Police), with a view to Summers starring. After a year of development, Summers parted from the project causing delays to the production until producer Mark Forstater came on board, attracting American and Irish finance for the project [1]. The film was due to go before the cameras in May 1985 with Bob Geldof contracted to star [2]. However, stripped of any pop-star associations (bar a cameo from British pop group Level 42), cameras finally started rolling for six weeks on 4th November, 1985. Production wrapped in April 1986, with the budget coming in at £1.5 million and it was released onto the European circuit in 1987.

The much-missed Film West hailed The Fantasist in their Irish Trash Classics series as ‘definitely, definitely, definitely… the worst feature to ooze onto celluloid in the country EVER…’ [3] Emphatic words of condemnation indeed, but typical of the film’s accepted reputation.

Hardy himself believes that the Irish critics are largely responsible for the poor reception given to the film on its initial release. Despite assurances from producer Mark Forstater that the thriller would be ‘Hitchcockian and in no way political’ [4] the film may have been caught up in a war played out on the front lines of national identity. According to Hardy: ‘It was highly political… The whole Cusack thing was a sort of storm that only journalists can manage to get going. And I suppose the fact that I was obviously English only made it worse…’ [5]

Cyril Cusack was one of Ireland’s leading actors, much respected in his native country, and his inclusion in the cast of The Fantasist can only have opened doors for Hardy and his crew in Ireland. Shooting on location in Dublin and Wicklow began 4th November, 1985 for a planned six weeks. Two weeks into the process and Screen International still cites Cyril Cusack as part of the cast alongside Christopher Cazenove, Timothy Bottoms, Moira Harris, Bairbre Ni Chaoimh, John Kavanagh and James Bartley [6]. However, by the second half of the month, Cusack’s name had vanished from publicised cast lists. It seems that very early on in the rehearsal period director and star clashed. Hardy explained the situation to me in June 2006:

‘He just thought I’d been terribly arrogant. And I thought Cusack was being terribly arrogant. He wouldn’t rehearse. He wandered around with a bottle of whiskey wherever he went, and I thought, “This is going to be a disaster. I can’t live with this.” One of the producers almost wept when I told him I was firing Cusack. But what it meant was the Irish journalists went to Cannes and badmouthed it all over the place, so the Brit journalists thought, “If they’re saying how terrible it is, it must be terrible!”’ [7]

He elaborated in his written introduction to the film when it was screened as part of the Fantastic Films Weekend in Bradford: ‘As an Englishman, director or not, mine was considered an offence against Irish honour. Today I think a more self-confident Ireland would have taken that in their stride.’ [8]

Undoubtedly, considering the film was completely produced through Irish money, the political ramifications of the dismissal of the leading Irish performer by an English director cannot be understated [9]. It is also possible that the existing reputation of the film has been blindly accepted throughout the years by audiences without examining the text for themselves. Certainly there are problems with the film – some of the performances are a little eccentric (but then this is a film dealing with odd people and tastes anyway). The script is at times ill-conceived, and it is clear that Hardy lacks the flair with dialogue that The Wicker Man co-scribe Anthony Shaffer possessed. Also, direction-wise the pacing and flow of certain sequences is misjudged.

Others have critiqued the presentation of the Irish themselves in the film. The almost Quiet Man-esque scenery and inhabitants of the countryside – not quite bog-swilling as some would have it but certainly sheltered, and prejudiced, and partial to alcohol – are juxtaposed with the hustle and bustle of Dublin city. Some of the worst perversions presented in the film appear to be indulged in by upstanding members of the community – schoolteachers and policemen amongst them – is this perhaps further fuel to the anti-Fantasist fire in Ireland?

It would be disingenuous of me to suggest that the film is not fundamentally flawed. Standing alongside The Wicker Man, the closer one looks the more the unrealised potential becomes evident [10]. And yet I would argue that there is something curiously inviting about The Fantasist.

It seems safe to say that there has not been a film like it before or since in the annals of Irish cinema. Sex has never been a subject which sits easy with Irish cinema, the deep Catholic vein running through the country and its moral guardians (the Irish Film Censors) no doubt having a significant role to play (best explored by others). For a film produced in a country so anxious about promoting sex outside of a heterosexual marriage that until 1993 condoms were highly restricted, Hardy’s Fantasist (and this is ‘Robin Hardy’s The Fantasist’ according to the title captions, as opposed to anyone else’s) approaches the subject head-on and with little restraint. From the opening frames the film walks a winding path through fantasy, perversion, delinquency, infidelity, fetish, come-ons, chat-ups and assault.

It is with this knowledge in place that one comes to The Fantasist…..

Before the film is through, Hardy will have challenged Ireland’s sexual mores and the image of a pure upstanding Irish citizen. Promoting the film in 1986, Hardy commented, ‘My problem… was to keep the thriller aspects of the story without losing the portrait of contemporary Ireland. The Irish can be a bit overburdened with soul-searching, but as a foreigner I felt that I could see the story objectively…’ [11] It could be argued that the Irish did not feel comfortable with Hardy’s objective view of the nation’s sexuality – a sexuality depicted in conflict with the strict Catholic attitude which governed it.

Hardy’s film shows Irish teachers as perverted fetishists (with bad-breath, kinky hang-ups about balloons, mothers and rubbing stomachs as a prelude to being masturbated); the church is desecrated and denounced when Danny marches out of his wife’s funeral service shouting ‘Lies! Lies! Lies!’; marriage is a breeding ground for perversion as demonstrated by Danny’s dirty phone calls to his wife and her need for more of the same; the Irish home is corrupted through Patricia’s cousin’s drunken attempts to come-on to her; Ireland’s capitol is denounced as a ‘cess-pit’ (and seems to fit the bill as centre of the sexual deviances depicted in the film); the women on the receiving end of the phone calls are seen to be complicit and engage with the fantasising caller who will ultimately destroy them; and perhaps most challenging, the upholders of Irish law and order, the Irish police force, produce the worst perpetrator of them all in the Inspector – a sexual deviant and killer. Every aspect of Irish life is attacked and undermined.

This is a film which plays with all kinds of sexuality and sexual expression. Essays could be composed examining the various undercurrents at length, but we’ll restrict ourselves here to a few more detailed observations.

The limited critical response and commentary on the film suggests that Patricia (Moira Harris) is a sexual innocent, or even repressed, and suggests that it is this innocence which makes her a willing participant and magnet for the sexual attention of other men. But this is a fundamental misreading of the film – Patricia, in deference to Catholic Ireland, by her own admission is already sexually awakened. During an unusually intimate conversation with new flatmate Monica (from Ballyshannon), she admits to having ‘given away’ her virginity to a man at college, and subsequently choosing to remain celibate until she meets the right man. From her behaviour with Danny from the flat downstairs and later on with the Inspector it is evident that Patricia is more than capable and sexually alert, and savvy enough to know her own mind and decline the advances of her work colleagues.

Avoiding her lecherous colleagues she finds a shared flat in a Dublin suburb with the naïve and inquisitive Monica. The introductory sequence is a fine example of shoe-horned dialogue, and sits uneasily with this viewer. Monica makes much of the grand lit – a huge four poster bed which dominates the bedroom. In this most unlikely sequence we learn that Patricia must share this most personal of spaces with her new flat mate. Whilst older viewers might be made to think of a feminised version of Morecambe and Wise (‘What do you think of the show so far…’), the proximity of the two women in their undergarments in this unusual bed-sharing arrangement is also implicitly suggestive of a lesbian undercurrent. This is underscored with the awkward conversation following the revelation of the sleeping arrangements, in which Monica quizzes Patricia at length on the loss of her virginity and what she looks for in a man.

Deserving of careful study is the climactic sequence at Goosefoot’s home. Believing the perpetrator of the deviant phone-calls has entered her flat, Patricia climbs out the window, across the roof and down to the ground from where she runs across Dublin arriving outside the home of the police inspector. He welcomes her in, and after discovering his copy of The Tibetan Book of the Dead and learning he lives alone, Patricia becomes jumpy until invited to examine a particular hobby of his.

The white-walled room is covered in various black and white photographs of Patricia, taken at various locations over a period of some weeks (maybe even months). As the Inspector locks the door we see a couch along the length of one wall, and above it the striking colour image of a painting (Francois Boucher’s portrait of Louise O’Murphy, child-courtesan of Louis XV). The Inspector tells Patricia (and the film’s audience) that he had previously thought of this image as embodying the perfect Irish woman [12]. The previous murdered victims have been arranged in a similar pose to O’Murphy in the painting, and he soon sets about persuading Patricia to mimic the pose as well.


Running throughout the film’s duration is a thread of scopophilic desire, which comes to a climax in this sequence. The inspector sees his victims and watches them from afar, seeking to own and possess the woman in as much as she echoes the painting of the courtesan so prominently featured at the denouement. He attempts to control her attire, her posture and her very image. The room filled with photographic images of Patricia is a testament both to the voyeuristic scopophilia and the possession/control of the woman. It is not enough for the Inspector merely to look at her (we see him openly photograph Patricia at the horse races), but he must interact with her – hence the phone calls – and ultimately to possess her through the control of her body in replicating the painting. He takes the idealised sexuality of the renaissance painting, replicating the positioning and framing through the modern photographic methods. Through possession of the photographs, he possesses Patricia, and the lost idealised original of the painting. She supplants the image which has been his idealised woman. It should be stressed that the woman in the painting is a prostitute – a submissive participant in a sexual relationship subject to the male whim. The presence of the unsheathed knife on top of the camera has obvious phallic connotations, but also serves as a very real threat should Patricia not comply with his desire. Its placement alongside the camera also serves to remind the viewer of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960).

Throughout her ordeal as Patricia is requested to strip and adopt the pose of the courtesan, she is seen to be complicit. Rather than take a strictly submissive position, we observe her watching her attacker intently, and also looking into his eyes. The strictly voyeuristic gaze of the attacker is broken, and we have a mutual act of scopophilia.

The sequence mirrors that of Willow’s dance in The Wicker Man. In each we are presented with a naked female form, which is engaged in a dance (of sorts) which serves as a prelude to sex. In The Wicker Man, the dance (complete with Willow’s rhythmic slapping of her own body) is meant to entice Sgt. Howie to sleep with Willow. The sequence in The Fantasist has the Inspector beating Patricia’s bare buttocks, presumably as a prelude to a sexual assault which he will act out. Patricia defies the expectations of both audience and perpetrator by taking over the sexual assault. She moves from a passive position to that of sexual dominance, eventually screwing him into a feverish sweat. She is seen to enjoy this act of female rape, which itself cannot have sat well with the Irish censors. It was the sequence in Straw Dogs (1971) in which Amy (Susan George) is raped by a former lover and seems to enjoy the rape that was largely responsible for the British censors banning the film until 2002. For Hardy to present us with a sequence as bold is testament to his challenging of Irish cinema laws.

The Fantasist’s reputation is that of one of the worst films ever to come out of Ireland and Irish critics have accepted that tag almost without question. British critics have generally looked to its universal storyline (the story could have worked equally well in Cornwall, the Highlands, the lake district, Brittany, the American deep south, etc.), but remain disappointed due to comparisons with Hardy’s previous film. Non-Irish critics at the time of release view it objectively as a mixed bag.

If viewed without expectations or prejudice, The Fantasist is a perfectly watchable thriller. Granted, it has some excruciating lines, and some odd performances, but these are part and parcel of one of the most bizarre stories ever committed to celluloid on this island. At times uncomfortable, and constantly challenging, Hardy’s film viewed now merely seems ahead of its time. Ireland simply wasn’t ready to face its sexual identity.

See also for more on Hardy’s follow-up to The Wicker Man

Robert J.E. Simpson is a writer and academic based in Belfast. He can be contacted at

1. Michael Dwyer, ‘Juxtaposition of laughter and death adds to the intrigue of Forstater and Hardy’s The Fantasist’, Screen International 542, 5 April 1986, p22

2. ‘Sneak preview for “Number One”’, Screen International 491, 6 April 1985, p14

3. Derek O’Connor, ‘Irish Trash Classics – The Fantasist’, Film West n. 28 12 May 1997, p10

4. Quoted in ‘Dublin start for “Fantasist”’, Screen International 518, 12 Oct 1985, p4

5. Interview with author, 17 June 2006

6. Screen International 523, 16 November 1985, p17

7. Interview with author, 17 June 2006

8. Robin Hardy, written introduction to screening of The Fantasist at Fantastic Films Weekend, Bradford, read Friday 16 June 2006. Text available at:

9. There is some discrepancy about the funding sources – contemporary trade publications variously reported the budget as being raised completely by private Irish finance, Irish and American private investors, and largely British funded with Irish completion finance.

10. Much could be written about the comparisons and connections with The Wicker Man, of presentations of sexuality, of the Hitchcockian theme of ‘the wrong man’ which sees the roles of hunter and hunted as interchangeable, etc. but I shall leave those for another study.

11. Quoted in ‘Irish backdrop for universal story’, Screen International 550, 31 M ay 1986, p16

12. Louise O’Murphy posed for the painting at the age of 14. It is beyond the scope of this article to investigate the implications of her age on a reading of this film.