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.