Liam Hanlon sheds light on Claire Dix’s debut feature.
Sunlight is the feature length directorial debut from Claire Dix featuring Barry Ward as Leon, a former drug addict now caring for his sponsor Iver (Liam Carney) who is suffering from a debilitating terminal illness. Leon is insulted by drug dealers lurking around his flat for becoming clean and finding a new lease of life in caring for Iver. On a day off, Leon finds reason to visit Iver and enters his house to discover Iver in the process of taking his own life with the aid of Maria (Maureen Beattie), a stranger to Leon, but with whom Iver has been planning his departure for four months. Leon intervenes and pleads with Iver to reconsider his motives and insists on taking Iver outside beneath the bright summer solstice sunshine visiting former haunts attempting to sway him from his plan.
In 91 minutes, Sunlight tackles hard-hitting sociopolitical issues such as drugs, recoveries and the intergenerational impact upon local communities. For an Irish film, and for a theme not regularly discussed/referenced in Irish media, the subject of assisted dying is powerful here in its delicate depiction and is a conversation Irish society needs to keep having. Yet, despite such impactful themes, the script from Ailbhe Keogan achieves a tonal balance with moments of levity and glimmers of optimism amidst the afflictions. The cinematography from Narayan Van Maele greatly aids this with a reliance on natural sunlight enforcing a sense of optimism for the characters and the external location shots captures a sense of genuine community in the film’s worldview.
The performances from the main trio are impressive and in how they support in depicting the aforementioned sociopolitical themes. Liam Carney is believable as Iver and his portrayal is human and doesn’t descend into an excessive depiction of a terminally ill person. Maureen Beattie is sincere in her portrayal of Maria and you sympathise with her motivations in assisting people such as Iver with their choice to end their lives on their terms. Barry Ward, as expected, delivers a strong performance as the mercurial Leon and the characterisation is almost like an upgraded version of Rats from Paths to Freedom/Spin the Bottle with a similar hairstyle, mannerisms and styling. Barry Ward has to be one of Ireland’s more underappreciated actors at the moment and he is displaying different ranges to great effect in recent efforts such as Extra Ordinary, Bad Sisters and RTÉ’s Clean Sweep series and is proving he can do it all.
Perhaps Sunlight does have some saccharine moments towards its conclusion and the inclusion of some peripheral characters and subplots was unnecessary. Yet, overall, Sunlight is such a strong debut from Claire Dix and there is a lot of promise here in how the script was effectively presented on-screen. There is lots to admire from all production elements, including the original music from Matthew Nolan and Stephen Shannon, which is far from maudlin and has lots of ambient synth sounds and ironically features basslines reminiscent of Thin Lizzy’s ‘Dancing in the Moonlight’.
Whilst this film may become a conversation starter surrounding assisted dying, Sunlight works in its own regard as a film that is enjoyable and heartwarming and does not operate merely as a vehicle for provoking contentious matters. It is fervent filmmaking at its finest with terrific lead performers and Irish cinema is all the more promising with professionals such as Claire Dix and Ailbhe Keogan creating the likes of Sunlight.