June Butler hails Prasanna Puwanarajah’s debut feature written by Stacey Gregg.
Set in the small town of Ballywalter, taxi driver Eileen (Seána Kerslake) is slowly spiraling out of control. Despondent and drinking too much, Eileen hates her dead-end job, misses her cheating boyfriend, and resents the fact that she’s living at home with her mother and heavily pregnant sister. Eileen makes excuses as to why she is ferrying people to and from destinations – she insists that it’s only to earn enough money to return to college in London, when the reality is more mundane. There is no college, and the job is not part-time. Day by excruciating day, Eileen becomes angrier and more disenchanted. Her pithy one-liners evolve into acerbically aggressive asides, and she gradually begins a process of alienation against family and acquaintances.
Cue the arrival of Shane (Patrick Kielty), a taciturn man in his early 50s. Eileen is hired as his cab driver to take him from Ballywalter to a comedy club in Belfast. As the job evolves into a regular fare, Eileen begins to evince an interest in Shane’s life. Normally indifferent to everyone and everything, Shane’s moody silences and one-word sentences begin to pique Eileen’s curiosity.
Shane, by contrast, is utterly unconcerned about Eileen’s sudden attentiveness. Emotionless, flat and uncaring, he barely reacts to any exchanges between Eileen and himself. She is seen as a means to an end, a person with whom he has no affinity and even less affection, simply hired to ferry him to and from his club.
Inside the club, Shane becomes marginally less aloof and starts to chat with other members. What soon becomes apparent is that the other participants, including Shane, are emotionally damaged and using the outlet of comedy as a form of therapy. Shane confesses to Eileen that his reasons for being there aren’t related to a desire in becoming a stand-up comedian, but rather a need to distance himself from who he once was and step out of his comfort zone. He tells Eileen that his wife and daughter left him when he became involved in a car accident while drink-driving. Shane maintains that he was a functioning alcoholic – a misnomer in itself. When alcoholism strikes, it never takes the form of mere functioning. It is a relentless progressing force, tripping and tumbling into devastation with innocents caught up in its wake.
The backdrop to the film is unnerving and unsettling – skies are overcast and cloudy. Eileen drives through drizzling rain to drop and collect Shane from his club. Many scenes are set against empty side-streets as Eileen waits for Shane to arrive at the pick-up point. The alleyways are sparsely populated and there is a sense of emptiness and weariness as each dreary day merges into one. In a sign of the disastrous turn Eileen’s life appears to be taking, she accidentally reverses over the motorbike of a local pizza delivery man who spends a sizable portion of the film trying to track Eileen down – further adding to an overarching sense of paranoia and fear. The world for Shane and Eileen appears to be hopelessly out of step with their personal reality. For both parties, life seems to be winding to a miserable close. But out of the darkness comes a ray of light – the duo start to find solace and hope from each other in trying to turn their lives around.
Patrick Kielty excels in the role of Shane, a bowed but not broken family man, yearning for a return to the old days of being with his wife and child. Seána Kerslake is wonderful as Eileen who is saviour and guide to Shane’s ultimate redemption and, who in doing so, finds her own path.
Prasanna Puwanarajah in his feature directorial debut has steered this absolutely stunning film with a mastery that suggests a far greater body of work lies in his curriculum vitae. Stacey Gregg has written a solid script, enough to allow the actors freedom to fly yet remain true to Gregg’s vision. Casting by Amy Ball is flawless. Chemistry between Kielty and Kerslake is the main catalyst behind the emotional power of Ballywalter.
One of the most tender and moving films I have ever seen. I cried.
Ballywalter is in cinemas from 22nd September 2023.