Sarah Cullen takes a look at Tomás Ó Súilleabháin’s Irish-language feature Arracht, which is Ireland’s entry for the 2021 Oscars’ best international feature film category.

Have we entered the age of the famine film? I don’t know for sure, but quite frankly it’s past due. Either way, writer and director Tomás Ó Súilleabháin’s Irish language drama is a welcome addition to the (hopefully) burgeoning field: a wonderfully shot and beautifully scored examination of the Great Famine. in which the Connemara seascape becomes the star.

With word coming of the imminent potato blight, Coleman Sharkey (Dónall Ó Héalai) works relentlessly along with his brother, Seán (Eoin O’Dubhghaill), both fishing and farming, to provide for his wife and young son. He also agrees to take in Patsy (Dara Devany), a man recently returned from Britain and rumoured to be a deserter from the army. When local thugs call around to Coleman’s farm, threatening violence upon non-payment of rent, he decides to visit the wealthy landlord (Michael McElhatton) along with Seán and Patsy, to negotiate fairer terms for all the struggling tenants. However, a violent sequence of events which take place that night are misattributed to Coleman, forcing him to flee the community, and leaving him to fend for himself on a tiny island off the coast of Galway. Encountering a young orphaned girl named Kitty (Saise Ní Chuinn), Coleman takes her under his wing, teaching her the skills required to survive the desolate west. 

Beginning as it does on the cusp of the Great Famine, Arracht provides a startling contrast between the hustle and bustle of Galway as a hub of activity before the rot and the traumatised landscape of lost and desperate individuals following its outburst. Like Lance Daly’s recent famine western, Black 47, it highlights how much of the devastation could have been avoided if it weren’t for the calculated greed of local landowners, never mind the influence of British forces. 

Indeed, Arracht’s predominantly Irish language performances illustrate how the poor Irish were fighting against British influence on so many fronts. O’ Healai and Ni Chuinn’s fantastic central performances are crucial to this, with Coleman’s despairing lament for his lost life contrasting with his new-found drive to support Kitty. 

Arracht, however, does become muddled with its climactic episode. Without giving too much away, it’s difficult to parse exactly what Arracht is trying to say here regarding the action in its wider cultural context. At times the violence strays into the voyeuristic without giving sufficient explanation, leaving the action feeling somewhat unearned. 

Where Arracht truly excels is in its depiction of the landscape: the howling wind and piercing sea spray frequently steal the limelight, with Kate McCullough’s captivating cinematography exposing the audience to the rugged coast of Galway. The powerful original music score, written and performed by Kila, mournfully evokes the desolation of Connemara and the hardships of its people. Indeed, Arracht is at its best when the cinematography, soundtrack and performance converge in its sea scenes: watching Coleman submerge himself in the freezing unforgiving waters of the Atlantic becomes the perfect representation of his own personal torment. Hopefully Ó Súilleabháin’s drama will get the recognition it deserves, solidifying the age of the famine film.

Arracht is scheduled to be released in Irish cinemas in Spring 2021.

The 93rd Academy Awards will take place on 25th April 2021.


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