Rachel Gough praises Robert Manson’s Holy Island as an exciting shift in Irish cinema.

Holy Island is a film which deals with liminal spaces. Director Robert Manson describes his characters as inhabiting a “waking dream and unfathomable reality”. The film follows David (Conor Madden) and Rosa (Jeanne Nicole Ní Áinle) , two literal lost souls trapped in the limbo of an island town, unable to escape or find their way back to normality. It is at turns, humorous, surreal, unsettling and heartwarming

The cinematography of the piece is instantly engaging. The camera dances its way through the film, intruding and insinuating in a way that feels at once intimate and natural and simultaneously jarring and bizarre. The film is shot predominantly in black and white and intercut with Super 8 footage, filmed by the director’s father. The effect of black and white (Manson notes that this was intended as a nod to Michael Powell’s A Matter of Life and Death) cinematography is instantly striking. The stark grey views of blustery coasts and beaches, harking back to Robert O Flaherty’s touchstone representations of the Blasket Islands, whilst still distancing the film and its exploration of identity, individuality and Irish culture from the saturated, scrubbed clean aesthetics of a Failte Ireland campaign. It is a very different Ireland on screen, but it is an Ireland which many viewers will be familiar with. 

The film has a certain zeitgeist. Its rumination on intergenerational conflict, emigration and stereotypes around Irish identity feel particularly resilient, what is most engaging is the way in which characters relate to these issues. One never feels that Manson has taken a pedagogical approach, dialogue flows and thorny issues are skirted, confronted, dissected and tossed aside with the intimacy of a conversation between friends. It is utterly absorbing and serves to ground a film, whose surrealist leanings could very easily see it drift into inaccessibility. This is partly thanks to the outstanding cast which Manson assembles, Ní Áinle in particular is electric on screen, injecting the film with spark and exuberance throughout. 

Robert Manson, has created a powerful, engaging film with Holy Island. At once familiar and eerie. It seems reminiscent of so much Irish cinema that has come before it but is undoubtedly and determinedly unlike anything seen before. It has avant garde tendencies, historically under-utilised in Irish cinema. I have no doubt this film will perform well internationally, I sincerely hope that a domestic audience will welcome it warmly, as it marks an exciting shift in the direction of Irish film. 


Holy Island screened on 1oth November 2021 as part of the Cork International Film Festival.


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