Stephen Burke braves the storm on a remote island.
Making a feature film is quite the challenge at the best of times. To try and do so in the midst of a global pandemic is much more difficult. For the film in question to be your first is even harder still and for the end product to actually be any good is the toughest task of all. As such, a great deal of credit must go to director Damian McCann as he has managed to pull off this feat. Take a bow Mr. McCann. Doineann is a very solid thriller that was filmed in County Down last Winter. While it makes the most of locations such as Ardglass, Islandmagee and Killyleagh, the truth is that this is a film that could have been set and shot in just about any country. It just happens to be an Irish language picture. This isn’t a weakness in any way though. Far from it. It is in fact one of Doineann’s biggest strengths. McCann has managed to assemble a very impressive cast for his debut with Peter Coonan and Bríd Brennan turning in terrific performances in the lead parts. They are ably supported by Clare Monnelly and Séan T. Ó Meallaigh who make the most of their smaller screen time.
As the opening credits play, we are presented with shots of an island. An atmospheric score brings a sinister undertone to proceedings right from the off but it is hardly necessary as I instantly found myself asking the question – “Does anything good ever happen in a film that is set on an isolated island?”. Unless you’re a teenager watching a Spring break trip to a Cancun-like paradise, then the answer is usually no. There’s a lot of foreboding going on in the first few minutes of Doineann – blood coloured shampoo drips down onto the floor of a bathroom shower, the piercing cries of a baby are heard while a kitchen pot sizzles both literally and metaphorically. This all occurs in the holiday home of investigative journalist Tomás and his wife Siobhán. Things are tense between them. She’s suffering from postpartum depression following the birth of their young son Oisín. It’s not long before she drops a glass onto the kitchen floor. More tension. We hear Tomás complaining on the phone to someone that “there’s no reception on this island”. Never a good sign for an onscreen character.
At this point the story was already starting to feel like it was going to be derivative of so many other mystery thrillers that I’ve seen before, which is why I was extremely impressed when it quickly proved to be anything but predictable. Having given so many early indicators of the type of genre piece we were going to be dealing with as an audience, the film wisely didn’t waste any more time in setting up the plot and on the face of it, it’s one that seems fairly simple. Tomás leaves the house for a few hours to interview somebody and when he returns his wife and son have vanished. Fearing that Siobhán may have done something stupid, Tomás steadfastly consults the only form of law enforcement that the island has to offer – Labhaoise, who is slightly eccentric yet also persistently inquisitive and completely thorough in her work. She’s a fascinating character and a bit of an enigma. Together she and Tomás try to figure out what happened to Siobhán and Oisín.
What really makes this more interesting than the average Netflix mystery is that a number of elements come together and all of them complement each other. Writer Aislinn Clarke delivers a good script that manages to be entertaining without stretching the bounds of credibility too much. I’ve purposely refrained from revealing anything that happens beyond the set-up of the plot as this is one of those films where the less you know in advance the better. McCann has then taken Clarke’s script and turned it into an atmospheric thriller. His direction is smoothly assured and very mature for someone creating his first feature. I was actually surprised when I discovered this was his debut. He is well serviced by Damien Elliott and Angus Mitchell’s moody photography, which comes especially alive in the night time scenes. This ensures that the film is cinematic and prevents it falling into the category of “it could have been a TV movie instead”. As I’ve already stressed above, Doineann embraces its genre status from the get-go and from an audience point of view this approach is welcome as long as what unfolds on screen isn’t clichéd and trite. Such is never the case here as the film is always intriguing, never boring and quite captivating at times.
Most impressive of all though is the cast. McCann has snagged two of the best actors in Ireland, both of them criminally underrated in my view. Brennan and Coonan are very capable and accomplished stage performers but they each also possess a great deal of on screen charisma and it’s hard to take your eyes off either throughout Doineann. In the case of Brennan, what’s even more impressive is the fact that she is not a fluent Irish speaker. You’d never guess it from watching the film.
In the online Q and A after the screening, a portion of time was spent discussing the fact that Doineann is a film made in the Irish language. All concerned seemed to agree that there is no reason why Irish films have to be historical in content in order to justify being made as Gaeilge. This coincides with a view that I have personally held for some time. Certain parts of Doineann reminded me of one of the better films of the past 15 years – the 2009 Argentinian film The Secret In Their Eyes. While Doineann is not at that level (no shame, TSITE did win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film after all), it’s very encouraging to see Irish language films being made about modern themes and set in the present day. It may well even prove to be the case that it’s a film of this ilk that nabs us our own Oscar for Best Foreign Film someday in the not too distant future.
McCann stated that he loved the idea of approaching an Irish language story with an American filmmaking sensibility and that’s what he’s done with Doineann. While it is of course important to use our native language to tell stories specific to our own historical development as a nation, there’s no reason why the Irish language cannot also be used to tell good stories set in the world we currently live in. It doesn’t need to be a case of either/or. The Irish element of Doineann makes it uniquely Irish while appealing to audiences on both a domestic and international level. McCann stated that in a way the blueprint of films made in the Irish language is still being created currently. Hopefully more films in the vein of Doineann get the greenlight soon and receive the support and distribution they deserve. This is coming from someone who isn’t an Irish speaker of any strength at all and isn’t a niche fan of Irish/English/American/foreign films but rather just a fan of good films in general.
Doineann screened on 25th July 2021 at the Galway Film Fleadh 2021.