Review of Irish Film @ Cork Film Festival 2019: Evening Redness of the South

Emma Keyes takes in Colin Hickey’s dialogue-free, poetic feature.

The Evening Redness of the South, written, directed, and edited by Colin Hickey, follows a working-class father and son in County Cork from building site to building site, intercut with stunning imagery of the landscape. The film contains no dialogue, making it a twenty-first century kind of silent film, albeit one that also lacks titles cards. As an exercise in avant-garde filmmaking, the film can be compelling and confusing at the same time. The narrative has a hard time revealing itself and so often we’re left with what feels like decontextualized visuals.

Hickey has a visual preoccupation with the male body at work. The camera lingers on images of a man’s bare back, his hands, his feet, and the tools he uses and Hickey returns again and again to these images. Since the narrative aspect of the film lacks clarity, the visuals come to the forefront of the viewing experience, especially because so many of the images in this film feel akin to paintings in their vividness and in their stillness. Hands touch in close-up visually calling to mind the way that God and Adam’s hands meet in Michelangelo’s fresco in the Sistine Chapel. Later we get crucifixion imagery when the man rests a shovel across his bare shoulders. And with no dialogue, people’s gazes take on a particular significance. The film holds the thought that none of us can ever stop touching or looking, even if we don’t have anything figured out.

Everything is set against the sky in this film. Buildings and structures jut up into the sky, filling the frame. The low-camera angle dominates throughout, such that the sky takes up the majority of many shots. The Heavens press down on men at work and men at rest. The soundscape lulls you into a rhythm. The film feels like a hymnal, even if it’s not sure to what exactly it is praying. The sacred and the profane come together in a life.

According to Hickey during the audience Q&A after the screening, the story came together in the post-production process. Much of the acting was improvised on camera and Hickey said, “I didn’t direct them. Their performances are their own.” Perhaps the story would have felt more cohesive with a clearer sense of direction going into the production process. Still, Hickey made clear that his film was “driven by images, sound, colour, light” in the tradition of pure cinema and it very much fits into that tradition.

The film, made over four years, makes choices that don’t quite work, but nonetheless, The Evening Redness of the South stuck with me; some of the particularly striking images still conjure themselves in my mind. And the film certainly serves as a testament to the fact that anyone can make a film if they really set their mind to it. Hickey has no degree and describes himself as “very poor”, so I’m sure it wasn’t easy for him to make this, but he did. We could all bear to learn something from him in that regard.

The Evening Redness of the South screened on 13th November as part of the 2019 Cork Film Festival (7 – 17 November).

 

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Review of Irish Film @ Cork Film Festival 2019: Floating Structures

Emma Keyes takes a look at Adrian Duncan and Feargal Ward’s  Floating Structures, a flâneur-like quest to consider the gravity-defying mysteries of structural engineering.

The screening for Floating Structures, directed by Feargal Ward and Adrian Duncan, opened with the duo’s short film Memory Room, an otherworldly disorienting film plunged deep in a snowy expanse. Sisyphus probably would have recognized his own situation in the actions of the unnamed protagonist who drags a sled through the snow for twenty-two minutes. Since the film has little plot to speak of outside of that, the aesthetics become all the more notable. Visually, the film sets up a monochromatic dichotomy: white and black, light and shadow, night and day. The soundtrack adds a cerebral element that helps the film keep its audience’s attention. Memory Room is a striking avant-garde piece.

Floating Structures follows a man on a quest to find a bridge in Germany. He’s an engineer by training and his view of the world around him is funneled through the skillset and set of experiences; he has the mind of an analyst. The bridge at the centre of the initial quest no longer exists, but that sends the protagonist (a fictional construction) veering off in different directions as he travels around Europe putting his engineer’s brain to use.

The most frustrating aspect of Floating Structures is the monotonous voice of the narrator character. He never modulates his tone, pitch, or speed at all, which makes it hard to focus on what he’s saying. Fundamentally, a meditative personal essay about engineering has trouble sustaining itself for the entirety of a feature-length film. I am not an engineer and maybe if I were I would disagree, but at times I found the film somewhat self-indulgent and too slow. The voiceover certainly played a part in that as did the fact that much of the forage was slightly slowed down so that we weren’t watching in real time. Additionally, the camera movement and the score also moved at just about the same pace for the whole film. Those compounding monotonous elements lulled me into a near stupor and so I did not retain as much information from the film as I might have hoped.

I found the Q&A with Adrian Duncan after the screening to be more interesting than the film itself. His thoughts on he and co-director’s practice were enlightening and helped to flesh out the film. Duncan and Ward “weren’t interested in showing them [buildings] in a beautiful architectural sense” but rather in an analytical sense. They were also interested in blurring the lines between documentary and fiction filmmaking: hence the fictional protagonist in the real world offering up a factual narration of that world. Although the character is not real, “in none of the buildings or history of the buildings was anything sexed up.” The protagonist “never goes beyond a cypher” just like the unnamed protagonist of Memory Room. Ward and Duncan have interesting ideas and I just wish they had managed to convey them more effectively on screen. Still, any architects or structural engineers should at least get a kick out of Floating Structures even if I didn’t.

 

Floating Structures screened on 14th November 2019 as part of the Cork Film Festival (7 – 17 November).

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Review of Irish Film @ Cork Film Festival 2019: Lost Lives

 

 

Emma Keyes was at the Cork Film Festival to see Lost Lives, Dermot Lavery and Michael Hewitt’s film adapted from the book that aims to document the stories of the men, women and children who have died as a result of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. 

William Kinney. Stephen Keating. Malcolm and Peter Orr. Philip Rafferty. William Gordon Gallagher. Danielle Carter. John, Anna, Jacqueline, and Anne Marie O’Brien. Julie Statham. James Joseph Connolly. Julie Livingstone. James Kennedy.

These are just some of the civilians, soldiers, and paramilitary fighters who died as a direct result of the Troubles in Northern Ireland and that the film Lost Lives, co-directed by Dermot Lavery and Michael Hewitt, attempts to illustrate. The film adapts the book of the same name that chronicles every one of the more than 3700 people who lost their lives during the conflict in Northern Ireland.

Each of the nearly twenty stories is narrated by a different actor from the island of Ireland (Liam Neeson, Brendan Gleeson, Stephen Rea, Roma Downey, and Kenneth Branagh, to name just a few). Every story helps to illustrate the way in which, as stated by the mother of the murdered Orr brothers, “It’s like sitting back and watching a nation commit suicide…and there’s nothing you can do about it.” No one story rises above any other as more powerful, rather each story builds upon the ones that came before it, rising to a crescendo that cannot be looked away from. 

This film does not interest itself in the political, social, religious, or economic realities and machinations of the Troubles. Other books and documentaries have done thorough jobs pinning down just how the Troubles came to be, so for a viewer who knows nothing about the twentieth century history of Northern Ireland, Lost Lives is not the best starting point for learning that context. Hewitt and Lavery focus on showcasing a cross-section of stories of people who died by gunfire, bombings, and suicide during the Troubles and after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. This approach emphasizes the human element of the conflict which makes for hard but necessary viewing.

While every story the film highlights devastates, the film’s aesthetics undercut the power of its narrative. In various moments throughout the film, the score overpowers the narration and visuals, telling us how to feel instead of letting the stories stand for themselves. The visuals also often left something to be desired. Visually, the strongest moments of the film occurred when the filmmakers showed archival footage from the time period: bombings, funerals, and daily life. Had the whole film consisted of archival footage with voiceover narration on top, the film would have been visually tight and arresting. Instead, Lavery and Hewitt intercut random footage of various scenes of landscapes, animals, and decaying buildings.

In the Q&A after the screening, Hewitt, with regards to the footage, said, “We didn’t want to go and film somewhere that directly related to what we were reading in the book,” and, “It was about creating space for the words.” That justification is understandable, but nonetheless, the random footage creates a distance between the narrative and the audience when the film would have been better served by trying to create an immediacy between the two. The natural aesthetics imbue the film with a sense of the mystical and epic and unknowable when really the tragedy of the situation in Northern Ireland is in how utterly mundanely human it all is. The natural world has little to do with humans killing one another.

Although the aesthetics undermine the power of Lost Lives, the film still stands as an important testament to a traumatic time period whose repercussions resonate in Northern Ireland today. The film bears witness to the more than 3700 people dead in this conflict and so must we.

 

Lost Lives screened on 8th November 2019 as part of the Cork Film Festival (7 – 17 November).

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Brian J. Falconer, Producer of ‘Ordinary Love’

Photograph by Roberta Matis

Joan and Tom have been married for many years. There is an ease to their relationship which only comes from spending a lifetime together. When Joan is diagnosed with breast cancer, the course of her treatment creates a divide within their relationship  as they are faced with two very separate challenges: dealing with the extreme physical suffering of treatment and chemotherapy or contemplating the possibility of living alone.

Ordinary Love is the complex, humour-filled  story about love, survival and the epic questions life throws at each and every one of us. Gemma Creagh talks to producer Brian J. Falconer (The Dig) about the film. 

 

Thanks so much for chatting with us. Let’s start at the beginning… how did you become involved in this project?

For each project, it’s always different for a producer. Either you conceive it from scratch or somebody headhunts you for it. For Ordinary Love, it was through my producing partner, David Holmes, who is very good friends with Owen McCafferty. Owen and his wife, Peggy, actually lived through a version of this, which is what inspired the screenplay. David told Owen that he thought he should try this as a screenplay because Owen had been wanting to write something for screen for a while. It was at that point that I was brought into the mix with the job of bringing it from a treatment through development and then into production.

 

Ordinary Love has been very well-received critically both here and in the UK and is set for a release next year in the States; do you think this is the type of story to travel?

I think the beauty of the film is that it’s a universal story. It’s the type of love story you don’t usually see, about an older couple who’ve lived together for years and then one of them experiences this diagnosis which flips their lives upside down. When we start, their lives have already been flipped upside down by another event. So they are really just getting back to normal. I think the film is going to travel really well because this is the way people deal with illness, also the reality of long-term relationships is very similar to Tom and Joan in our movie. 

 

Cinema is usually so heightened and melodramatic; however, in Ordinary Love, Tom and Joan’s relationship is depicted as natural and understated, making it ‘true’ in a sense, and relatable.

That’s the thing. What you’re going to see with Ordinary Love is closer to real life. We’re a fly on the wall of this relationship and everybody across the world will be able to recognise a bit of ourselves in that as well as the dynamic we have with a partner. But the thing is, real life is as high-stakes as you can get. It’s life and death. In our film, when Joan gets the cancer diagnosis, she, like so many other people – my mum included, goes through the exact same journey with cancer and its treatment. The amount of people our team have been talking to after seeing this film, people who just come up to us at preview screenings and say: “I went through that exact same thing”, nobody else understands how brave they are. You can take it for granted that illness is going to strike us down – cancer is going to get one in three of us. Every one of us will know somebody who has gone through this and sometimes you just palm it off as “that’s just life”. But when you see Ordinary Love, Joan is potentially going to lose her life. Tom might lose the love of his life. Even though he’s just drinking soup or sitting in the car in traffic, the stakes are so high. I just don’t think there’s been a film like Ordinary Love before.

 

Can we talk a little about the process of getting the film made? When did the directors Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn become attached? 

Lisa and Glenn were actually lined up from the start. David Holmes is good friends with Owen McCafferty, the writer.  He’s also good friends with Lisa and Glenn. In his head from the very start he was thinking about building this package. Then they brought me on to produce and bring it through the development process. We all knew McCafferty because he’s so well respected as a playwright. As soon as Glenn and Lisa met with Owen, when he had the first treatment, that was the point where everybody got really excited about it.

 

And Liam Neeson and Lesley Manville… there’s such amazing chemistry between the pair. They’re so believable and their performances are very celebratory of life. Can you tell me about the casting? 

Liam was attached when Owen produced his first draft revision, extremely early. His first draft was just so accomplished  – yet he’d never written a screenplay before. Liam climbed on board at that point and then… bang! Everything went nuts! Straightaway, I’m going out to look at finances and talk to sales agents. I brought on another producer called Piers Tempest to help me close the financing of the project. I really didn’t have much experience with that at that point. That’s when we started to build our package. We had to work out what budget we should aim for, who are our partners and then the big question, who’s going to play Joan? It’s effectively Joan’s story. 

Way before even Liam joined, I remember having a conversation with the Lisa and Glenn talking about who would be the dream cast and that was Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson. It was very serendipitous and the planets aligned so many times for us but fast forward to the point where we were casting: Liam had a certain availability so we were tied to certain dates. Then we started looking into Leslie’s availability… and she wasn’t available. We thought ‘Oh God, I don’t think this is going to work’. At the same time Lisa and Glenn had talked to Liam about what his thoughts were about who should play Joan? Lesley Manville was his first choice too. He wanted to work with her so much that he moved to accommodate her availability.

 

You made an interesting point about the financial prep – where did the money come from?

I suppose to clarify, being in the North, Northern Ireland Screen have supported us from the very start of our careers, through all our short films and various projects. They, along with the BFI, had actually developed Ordinary Love. I went for BFI and Northern Ireland Screen Development funding because I really felt they would be amazing partners to help us get the production funded. But we were always going to need more money. Especially then when we secured the incredible talent that we did. We just needed to make sure that we could afford the right budget to provide everybody with what they need. That’s where Piers Tempest is absolutely fantastic. At the same time then we wanted to look at sales agents. We had a lot of interest. As soon as someone sees Liam Neeson in a film, they think: ‘We can sell this’. There was one sales agent in particular, Bankside Films, that’s run by Stephen Kelleher, that went above and beyond everyone else at every stage in just showing his love for the film and his commitment to it. 

Without going into the details, it’s at that point when you’re choosing your partners for your film, you’re getting phoned every minute of every day by everybody trying to undercut the other person and trying to show that they are the one for the film. But we knew we wanted to work with  Stephen Kelleher – he’s so well respected. Through Bankside and then Head Gear Films we were able to complete our finance. Head Gear Films is run by two guys, Phil Hunt and Compton Ross, two complete gentleman who are the most incredible financiers and helped make our film happen along with Bankside,  the BFI and Northern Ireland Screen.

From my perspective, this was the first time I had to manage closing the finances. It’s a fascinating process. I learned a lot.

 

‘Ordinary Love’ is currently in cinemas.

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Review of Irish Film @ Cork Film Festival 2019: The Last Right

Kimberly Reyes checks in on new Irish comedy-drama The Last Right, Aoife Crehan’s feature debut, which premiered at the Cork Film Festival.

 

There are many reasons why one should not strike up a conversation with a nosey stranger on a long-haul flight. One of them would be ending up with an unwanted corpse to unload. This is the premise of newcomer Aoife Crehan’s comedy drama The Last Right. The film, written and directed by Crehan, plays on the tragedies of each of its character to create a humorous and absurd journey. 

Dutch actor Michiel Huisman has a fresh and alluring onscreen presence as Daniel Murphy, the film’s protagonist, an American who must come back ‘home,’ to Ireland, to deal with some unfinished business. Samuel Bottomley’s performance as the autistic teen Lois (Daniel’s main business) is even more affecting. 

But if you’ve seen Weekend at Bernie’sRain Man and The Legend of Billie Jean, you’ve kind of seen this film already, sans Irish accents and countryside. At points The Last Right is derivative enough to be parody: there’s a scene in which Daniel chases Lois in the rain as Lois runs out of the moving vehicle because he doesn’t feel safe. I sure hope Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman signed off on the tribute. But this scripting of autism doesn’t feel as tight and nuanced as it did in 1988 when Rainman was released, even if Hoffman’s character only represented a small percentage of autistics, as Lois oddly mentions in this film. 

And then there is the tired rom-com trope of a bad boy who keeps messing up after he reveals his dirty secret, which would lead many women to flee, but not his loyal, good-girl, manic pixie dream girl Mary (played by Niamh Algar). This setup is as old as the aforementioned movies the film “borrows” from, and it’s difficult to watch a woman earn a spot in a complicated man’s heart through enduring his meanness in this political climate. Having said that, the onscreen chemistry between Huisman and Algar is palpable. 

The movie shines when it centres on its characters’ lives in Ireland that could only take place in Ireland: a hilarious scene in a chipper, and relatable stories of Irish angst and youth (told as plot-tying reflection that could have been better served as flashback), and of course the stunning scenery of their journey from Clonakilty to Rathlin Island. And the journey’s pacing is entertaining most of the way through but making comedy out of tragedy is an Irish specialty that shouldn’t need to borrow any Americanness.

The Last Right screened on Thursday, 14th November as part of the 2019 Cork Film Festival (7 – 17 November).

 

The Last Right is released in Irish cinemas on 6th December 2019.

 

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Review: Portrait of a Lady on Fire @ Cork Film Festival

Sean O’Rourke takes a look at Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire.

In a scene midway through Portrait of a Lady on Fire (or Portrait de la jeune fille en feu) the two lead characters, Marianna, and Héloïse, one an artist, the other a lady awaiting her encroaching marriage, point out each other’s habitual gestures and their meanings – a bitten lip that signifies anger, a slightly raised eyebrow that signifies a loss of control. And for the rest of the film, those gestures become highlighted and significant. A raised eyebrow might suddenly seem crucial to our understanding of a scene. We might wonder if a bitten lip means the same thing now as it did when it was first identified, giving us insight into the evolution of these characters. It even begins to seem as though each one starts exhibiting some of the habitual gestures of the other.

We see their points of connection in these increasingly shared gestures and the already accomplished performances of Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel become even more meaningful, more revealing. It’s just one example of the excellent plotting done by director Céline Sciamma, who continually begins threads like this that weave their way throughout the film such that each ensuing scene becomes further layered with meaning and emotional resonance. Her skill behind the camera, both as director and screenwriter, is astounding and, on this simple plot, a love story between two women, she paints an astounding portrait of dynamic human connection within societal structures and the possibilities of what those connections might look like when the most harmful of those structures are stripped away. 

The film examines this theme by following Marianna, an artist in the 19th century, who has been sent to an island where she is to paint a wedding portrait of Héloïse, a young aristocrat. This portrait is to be sent away to Héloïse’s future, unknown Milanese husband. The painting of it, therefore, signals a sort of death of liberty for Héloïse. For this reason, inconveniently enough for Marianna, Héloïse refuses to sit for her portrait. Therefore, Marianna begins to befriend Héloïse, all the while covertly and closely observing her, painting her in secret. However, once all remnants of patriarchal control (which hold Héloïse to her coming marriage, hold back Marianna’s career, and police the types of relationships women are able to have with one another) leave the Island temporarily, Marianna and Héloïse are able to connect more and more closely with one another. They form a loving, ever-evolving bond that has a built-in time limit as Marianna’s painting of Héloïse, and indeed Héloïse herself, must soon be shipped away from this temporary utopia to Milan.

Since the film so adeptly and continually builds and displays the complexities of this relationship as I have said, we get the chance to see and deeply feel the building intimacy between these characters. We see this building relationship in an environment that is usually intensely realistic, with close attention to, for example, the realistic details of the act of painting, of clothing oneself, of cooking and eating. Sciamma uses these realistic details to give us tangible insight into how these characters are growing to perceive each other through how they perform these actions – especially through the act of painting where Marianna must constantly adjust how she depicts Héloïse in accordance with her evolving perception of Héloïse. Therefore, it is startling when this realism is occasionally and suddenly intruded on by myth and the uncanny in moments of artistic inspiration, longing, and anxiety, represented in a non-realistic manner. These moments are made all the more notable for being entirely unexpected in the context of the aesthetic of the rest of the film. And yet, these strange, eerie moments feel perfectly at home in the story, bringing us further into these characters’ perspectives, perhaps implying a shifting perception of the world brought on by their shifting perceptions of each other and vice-versa.

Sciamma handles these altering tones so well and uses them to further her insights on gender, class, human connection, and queerness, fully immersing us in this dynamic relationship and its implications. This unique, beautiful, queer, love story seemed to profoundly affect the audience I saw it with at the Cork Film Festival. I can assure you that it has affected me like no other film this year and I sincerely recommend you seek it out as it becomes more widely available in the coming months.

 

Portrait of a Lady on Fire screened on Saturday, 16th November 2019 as part of the Cork Film Festival (7 – 17 November).

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Review of Irish Film @ Cork Film Festival 2019: Irish Shorts 4: Finding Their Place

Aoife O’Ceallachain went along to the Irish Shorts 4: Finding Their Place to find some great filmmakers and films with characters seeking acceptance, vindication, assurance or literally accommodation.

 

On the afternoon of Thursday the 14th of November, I went along to the fourth instalment of Irish Shorts at the Gate Cinema. Under the title ‘Finding Their Place’, this collection of films showcases characters dealing with homelessness, feeling trapped and trying to find their purpose. The programme proved to be a showcase for some great emerging talent and I left the cinema excited about all the work these filmmakers are going to make in the future. For anyone looking to get involved in the film industry, going to shorts is a great place to start. You get a sense of the other work out there and you’ll start to see the same names come up again and again. It really opened my eyes to the talent we have, and the talent we as a nation have to nourish. With that said, I want to draw attention to a few shorts that caught my eye. 

 

Humblebrag

Sinead O’Shea / Ireland / 2019 / 4 mins

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Humblebrag had the biggest audible reaction. Directed by Sinead O’Shea (A Mother Brings her Son to Be Shot) we see a man and woman sit down on a sofa, where he shows her a montage he’s made of their relationship. It starts off normal enough, showing clips of her at gigs, on dates, at Electric Picnic and at the funfair. But the content starts to get darker, more annoyed, past the phase of pretence. Have to say it was too graphic for me at 6 o’clock on a Thursday – I just wasn’t expecting to see POV porn. But I guess the unexpected is part of the fun. At only 4 minutes it certainly packs a punch, best saved for after the watershed. 

 

Rosalyn

Olivia J Middleton / UK, Ireland / 2019 / 18 mins

Winner of Best Cork Film, Olivia J. Middleton’s Rosalyn is a psychological horror about a farmer who is expecting a child. As the delivery date looms, Rosalyn starts to see a disturbing figure coming out of the woods; animals become scared of her. Is Rosalyn imagining all this or are malevolent forces at play? Tackling themes of isolation, mental health during pregnancy and the expectations of motherhood, the film manages to teeter between delusion and reality. With influences of Jennifer Kent’s Babadook, Middleton’s haunting film leaves a lot to the imagination and inspired great discussion after the credits.  

 

In Orbit

Katie McNeice / Ireland / 2019 / 17 mins

Directed, written, produced and edited by Katie McNeice, In Orbit is a sci-fi short set in the 2050s. Maura, a retired optician is asked to describe the best experience of her life for the Human Experience Records. Maura recalls how she had never had a relationship, and how it altered the way she viewed the world. But that all changed in her forties, when she met Amy. Ultimately, In Orbit is about taking chances and opening your heart to new experiences, no matter how scared you are. Maura’s memories of the marriage equality referendum capture the gravity of the moment as a change for Ireland, further reflected in the futuristic technology of the 2050s. Composer Emer Kinsella brings great atmosphere to the film and elevates it to another level. I personally can’t wait to see what McNeice brings out next.

 

The Irish Shorts 4: Finding Their Place programme screened on Saturday, 9th November 2019  as part of the Cork Film Festival (7 – 17 November 2019).

 

 

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Review of Irish Film @ Cork Film Festival 2019: Sweetness in the Belly

 

Caleb Cotter checks out Sweetness in the Belly, a Canadian-Irish co-production of an adaptation of Camilla Gibb’s bestseller, directed by Zeresenay Berhane Mehari.

Before seeing Zeresenay Berhane Mehari’s second feature as director, I decided to spend a few minutes online researching it. Immediately, I found that it was under scrutiny for having Dakota Fanning play a “White Ethiopian Muslim”, a controversy the internet had created based off short clips of the film released online. Soon after, I closed my laptop and moved on to something productive, ready to let the film speak for itself. After watching, I couldn’t help but see the irony of the controversy, as the film seemed to argue similar points to what people had argued against it online.

Based on Camilla Gibb’s book of the same name, Sweetness in the Belly starts with Lilly (Dakota Fanning), a white Muslim woman, travelling to Britain as a refugee after the 1974 Ethiopian Revolution. She is immediately given priority over the other Muslim women, much to their dismay, but immediately sets about trying to help her fellow refugees and settle into British society. This journey is intercut with flashbacks to Lilly past, where we discover she was abandoned by her British parents at a young age at a Sufi shrine in Ethiopia and was raised by the Sufi master, and falls in love with Dr Aziz Nasser (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) during the final years of Haile Selassie’s reign, who she is trying to find in the present.

As you can see, there’s a lot going on in this film, and the film is able to carry out the story in an emotional and sincere way. Also, like his previous film Difret, Mehari delves fully into exploring his home country of Ethiopia; from its culture, social and religious beliefs, its complex political history and the ways refugees from the region were treated and how they set up life upon reaching a new country.

However, while the exploration of such subjects is possibly the most interesting part of the film, it also proves to be its biggest shortcoming. It feels like the film doesn’t quite know where to focus its attention, splitting it between the myriad of complex themes and political histories, as well as Lilly’s story and journey. Due of this lack of focus, and despite Fanning’s best efforts, Lilly never feels like a rounded, believable person but more so a blank slate we can see the world from, which takes much of the wind out of her love story that the film spends so much time on. And since the film spends so much time on this love story, it only gets to dip its toes into each of the complicated subjects and thus never explores them as fully as it means to.

However, while Lilly is never given the time to develop beyond that of her role as the protagonist, the supporting cast carry the film and bring most of the emotional depth to it.  Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Aziz and Kunal Nayyar as an Indian doctor Lilly meets in a hospital in Britain shine as well-rounded individuals who attempt to charm Lilly throughout the film and bring great levity in the film’s darker moments.

But it is Wunmi Mosaku as Amina, a fellow Ethiopian refugee and mother of two who Lilly takes in, who is the stand-out performance, as her story and presence becomes the bedrock of the film and the centre of the film’s most emotional moments. These moments are supplemented with a beautiful array of colour that breaks up the usual grey look of dramas with moments that feel like technicolour was used. However, the film does get a little too stylish during its emotional climax, taking some of the punch out of the moment.

Despite its flaws, Sweetness in the Belly stands as a solid, emotionally driven drama that covers a variety of complicated topics, although its attempt to split its focus on both these aspects causes both to not be explored fully, leading to the film not leaving as much of an impact as it could have.

 

Sweetness in the Belly screened on Sun 10th Nov @ 17:45 & Mon 11th Nov as part of the 2019 Cork Film Festival (7 – 17 November).

 

  • Director: Zeresenay Berhane Mehari
  • Producer(s): Jennifer Kawaja
  • Screenwriter(s): Laura Phillips
  • Main Cast: Dakota Fanning, Wunmi Mosaku
  • Country: Ireland, Canada
  • Language(s): Subtitled
  • Year: 2019
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