Stephen Burke reviews Michael Kinirons’ The Sparrow, which won Best Irish First Feature at the Galway Film Fleadh.
A remote fishing village in West Cork is the setting for writer/director Michael Kinirons’ full-length debut, The Sparrow. It’s an impressive opening bow, combining moody cinematography, well drawn characters and an element of suspense to create a cinematic experience that is greater than any of those individual parts. The Galway Film Fleadh jury was won over too, awarding The Sparrow the honour of Best Irish First Feature. The film blends the experience of longstanding character actors such as David O’Hara and Aisling O’Sullivan with up and comers like Éanna Hardwicke and Isabelle Connolly. However, it’s young Ollie West in his first onscreen role who has to carry most of the story on his shoulders and he is well able for the task.
16 year old Kevin (West) is going through a tough time to say the least. He’s really struggling to get over the death of his mother and this is made all the more difficult by the fact that even the slightest utterance of her name seems to set his father, Larry, off (played by the great David O’Hara). It’s also not helping that Kevin is routinely compared to his perfect older cadet-bound brother ,Robbie (Hardwicke), who fits the traditional image of masculinity far more than Kevin is ever likely to. Kevin is lashing out in a variety of ways and this irks his father no end. However, there are certain behaviours which Kevin engages in that disturb Larry more than others, not least of which is Kevin’s ritualistic donning of his mother’s lipstick. Larry was a soldier in his day and Kevin just does not fit the mould of what his father expects a son to be. The question of what it means to be a man is explored in The Sparrow and it’s a timely issue to place under the microscope too.
Things unexpectedly improve for Kevin when he strikes up a friendship with Hanna (Connolly), a new arrival to the local area. They discover an injured sparrow, which Kevin begins to nurse back to health in his bedroom. However, events take a downward turn again when Kevin realizes that the romantic feelings he has for Hanna are never likely to be reciprocated. Even worse, his brother may have something to do with this. Kevin’s emotions get the better of him while out on a fishing trip with Robbie and tragedy strikes. This all happens early on and the film quickly evolves into an examination of guilt, grief and the overbearing weight these emotions can have on a person.
The Sparrow includes some unflinchingly tough sequences but the cast is strong enough to skilfully navigate such terrain. Ollie West is in more or less every single scene and has enough natural talent to lead the film. It’s a great introductory performance. The supporting cast are all on form too but it’s during the scenes between West and O’Hara that The Sparrow really takes flight (see what I did there). O’Hara brings a brand of menace to the big screen that few others can match. His snarl alone says a thousand words. There is a nicely mellow moment between the two in a local pub but ultimately when the characters of Kevin and Larry share the screen they are sparring. Larry may be more physically domineering and threatening but the stony silences that Kevin frequently returns speak volumes too. Elsewhere, Mark O Halloran is good as a Garda and Dara Devaney has a nice turn as a simple local.
An interesting thing to note is that although the film is heavily focused on the dynamics of a dysfunctional father son relationship, female characters are actually at the heart of the piece, despite the fact these characters spend much time offscreen. Kevin’s mother is deceased, yet so much of the film revolves around her and the different ways that various characters remember her. Aisling O’Sullivan plays Kevin’s Auntie and doesn’t have a whole lot to do but makes the most of the screentime she does get. Young Michelle Gleeson does a very good job in a small but key role as Kevin’s little sister, Sally, whose future may well depend on how the relationship between her father and brother develops. In general though, the central characters are males existing without women and very much struggling in their absence.
At times The Sparrow feels a little rough around the edges but Kinirons’ direction is fairly assured and he always keeps an undercurrent of suspense going to supplement the characterization. Richard Kendrick’s cinematography serves two functions – it creates an appropriate atmosphere as well as providing the audience with some lovely aesthetics of West Cork. An example can be seen in the opening aerial shot of the sea that separates the area Kevin lives in from the rest of the world. It looks great visually but also hints at the trapped confines that Kevin resides in. Was this Kinirons’ intention? I’m not going to speak for him but the metaphor certainly works for me!
People may have preconceptions about this film being similar to Ken Loach’s classic Kes and although The Sparrow does feature an adolescent tending to a bird while enduring a glum day to day existence, the two are actually completely different. What both films do have in common is that each of them is well written with good characters. Certain aspects of the script for The Sparrow might not be the most original but the story is told well and people will find that rewarding. We can all empathize with characters suffering on screen, whether that be through grief, guilt or a whole multitude of other emotional difficulties. In the post-screening Q and A, Kinirons said “It’s about trauma and how trauma passes on through generations on some level”. Wise and relatable words from a director who may well have a promising future. The trouble with films like this is usually getting them made in the first place. As that hurdle is out of the way, I hope to see The Sparrow in cinemas soon and with any luck it will garner an audience.