Seán Crosson braves the wild mountains of Connemara to review Seán Breathnach’s story of friendless and guileless recluse John Cunliffe who is suddenly propelled into manhood at the ripe old age of 28.
This year’s Galway Film Fleadh featured the latest feature to emerge from Cine4 (a TG4/IFB/BAI initiative to develop original feature films in the Irish language), Foscadh (“Shelter”), a raw, emotionally wrought and at times excruciating excavation of loneliness and human vulnerability. Based on Donal Ryan’s acclaimed novel The Thing About December, Ryan has been rightly celebrated for his ability to capture in his work the distinctive English vernacular of the north Tipperary region in which he grew up. Seán Breathnach (who both wrote the screenplay and directed the film) therefore took a courageous decision to set his adaptation among Irish speakers in the Connemara Gaeltacht. However, his own familiarity with this locale, and the casting of a range of local Irish-speaking actors, ensures that the film has its own integrity to its setting and the people who inhabit it.
Nonetheless, this is at times not an easy film to watch. The themes examined here delve deep into the darker regions of both personal and social dysfunction. Foscadh opens with the return of lead protagonist John Cunliffe (impressively realised by Dónall Ó Héalai) to his home to discover the body of his mother on the sitting room floor. Unsure how to deal with this traumatic event, he sits for a while on the couch, seemingly helpless. We learn as the film develops that Cunliffe has limited social skills after growing up in an overprotective environment, largely isolated from the rest of the community. The wealth he inherits on his mother’s passing is resented by some local people and he is attacked and seriously injured on a night out. Following his admission to hospital he begins to open up and develop – it seems for the first time – human relationships outside his family context, including with fellow patient Dave (Cillian O’Gairbhi) who occupies the next bed, and particularly Siobhán (Fionnuala Flaherty), the nurse who cares for him. Following his release from hospital, he continues to maintain contact with both Dave and in time with Siobhán, with whom he eventually and tentatively attempts to develop his first romantic relationship. However, Cunliffe’s ability to engage with his fellow human beings is much less developed and in contrast to his relationship with his natural environment, beautifully depicted in several sequences and evocatively suggested by his repeated recitation of the placenames (as Gaeilge) of the land he inherited, part of which is sought by a local developer.
Foscadh is a further impressive Cine4 production; following the success and critical acclaim accorded to Tomás Ó Súilleabháin’s Arracht (2020) (also featuring Ó Héalai in the lead role and reviewed here after its screening at last year’s Fleadh), Foscadh was very positively received at the Fleadh and was recipient of this year’s Best Irish First Feature award. Though set in entirely different time periods, both films also share similarities beyond their Connemara setting in their excavations of human vulnerability and the suffering human beings can inflict on each other.
Foscadh doesn’t quite come together in its entirety as a fully realised and cohesive text; pacing is occasionally uneven or uncertain in the development of characters and their relationships. Nonetheless, this is an auspicious debut feature from Breathnach, assisted by Icelandic composer Sindri Már Sigfússon’s poignant soundtrack and Colm Hogan’s superb cinematography which employs the sublime landscape and natural world of Connemara to complement the emotional intensity evident throughout this moving production.
Foscadh screened on 23rd July at Galway Film Fleadh 2021.