Stephen Burke was at the Fleadh for Robert Higgins & Patrick McGiveny’s debut feature Lakelands.
Young Longford filmmakers Robert Higgins and Patrick McGivney won the Best Marketplace Project Award at the 2021 Fleadh for their idea for Lakelands and 12 months on they were back in Galway City to attend the world premiere of the film. This time round they scooped the prize for Best Irish Feature, producing a solid directorial debut from a script they penned themselves. It’s the performances of Éanna Hardwicke and Danielle Galligan that linger most in the memory though.
The plot of Lakelands is fairly straightforward. Cian (Hardwicke) is the captain of his local Gaelic football team. An ill-advised scuffle on a night out leaves him with a concussion and symptoms that just won’t go away. Before long a specialist has informed him that there is a very sizeable chance that he may never play football again. This is problematic to say the least. Cian loves the sport but even more than that, it’s something that his entire identity seems to be wrapped up in. After all, what is he without football? Deep down Cian knows that it won’t be an uncertain future he’s facing up to but more likely a grim and monotonous existence that is all too predictable (working on the family farm, drinking in the local, rinse and repeat).
As Cian features in pretty much every scene of Lakelands, McGivney and Higgins needed a strong actor to anchor the film and they secured one in Hardwicke, who can expect his career to jump up to another level very soon. He gives a charismatic and confident performance that keeps the audience on Cian’s side even in his more flawed moments. Danielle Galligan is also excellent as an old friend/old flame of sorts. She plays Grace, a warm and intelligent character who can see through Cian’s somewhat cocky veneer. When Cian spots her across a bar in an early scene, audience members would be forgiven for fearing and expecting a well-worn story arc to play out between the two. McGivney and Higgins veer away from cliché in this regard though and the “will they won’t they” aspect is only a smaller part of the overall drama between Grace and Cian. Hardwicke and Galligan were worthy joint-winners of the Bingham Ray New Talent Award and they are backed up with good support from veterans Lorcan Cranitch and Gary Lydon who play the figures of authority in Cian’s life, as his father and coach respectively. Dafhyd Flynn also delivers a good performance as Cian’s earnest best friend while Oisín Robbins offers some welcome moments of comic relief.
In the post-screening Q and A, McGivney said that he and Higgins felt that Gaelic Football was “fertile ground for a feature script” and they are correct in this view. There has been an absolute dearth of productions focusing on the GAA in Irish cinema. Is this because the sport is near ubiquitous in this country and many have decided against taking on something so loved for fear of getting it wrong? One can only speculate but McGivney and Higgins deserve a certain amount of credit for setting their story in this world, particularly as they have decided to tackle such a timely topic as concussion in sport, an issue that has been under-represented on screen (and in fact in society too) until fairly recently and is still nowhere near where it needs to be. In years to come Lakelands may well be remembered as a film that was out of the traps earlier than most in this regard.
The script as a whole isn’t especially original but Higgins and McGivney have done certain things to lessen this potential problem. They utilize the age old adage of show instead of tell and many key things are conveyed with few words. This doesn’t feel forced either and in one scene Galligan communicates quite a lot by the use of a single expletive. The catalytic fight scene is also handled well, making good use of sound, with a single thud proving to be sickeningly effective. Cian’s gentle side is revealed through his tender interactions with the animals on the farm whereas a less imaginative approach would have had a teammate or coach waxing lyrical. At times the pace of the film is a bit too slow but overall Simon Crowe’s cinematography successfully captures the small and occasionally claustrophobic nature of living within the confines of a small town. Lakelands was shot in Granard, Co. Longford but it’s representative of countless such localities throughout Ireland. As for the football itself, the action takes place off screen for the most part and the training scenes that do feature are shot mainly (and perhaps wisely) in handheld close ups.
Ultimately Lakelands isn’t really a story about GAA just as The Wrestler wasn’t really a story about wrestling. Both films are about characters trying to face up to the devastation of changing personal circumstances. In Lakelands the arena of Granard is far smaller but unlike in The Wrestler, Cian has the weight of a town’s expectation on his shoulders. His GAA career is not just personal to him but also to the local population, many of whom consider football to be far more than an amateur game. The inescapability of this all is exemplified well throughout and in one scene a seemingly innocuous trip to a DIY store borders on menacing as Cian’s commitment to the cause is questioned. The authenticity of the project is no doubt aided by the fact that McGivney and Higgins are very familiar with local GAA themselves. In the post-screening Q and A, McGivney spoke about this saying that, “We all grew up playing Gaelic Football together and it’s definitely a world we know quite well”.
If filmgoers approach Lakelands as a character piece and as a study of the effect that sport can have on a small town rather than as an out and out sports film, then they should get something out of it.
Lakelands screened on 9th July 2022 at the Galway Film Fleadh.