Irish Film Review: ‘Calm with Horses’ @ Toronto International Film Festival 2019 

 

Aoife O’Neill was at the Toronto International Film Festival 2019 and sent us on this review of Nick Rowland’s Calm with Horses.

 

One of a few Irish films that closed Toronto International Film Festival this year is that of Nick Rowland’s Calm with Horses; a film that was adapted by Joe Murtagh from Colin Barrett’s acclaimed collection of short stories. Calm with Horses premiered at the festival alongside an Irish Canadian co-production starring Dakota Fanning called Sweetness in the Belly, (also a book adaptation from Camilla Gibb’s book of the same name), as well as Neasa Hardiman’s film Sea Fever. It is clear that Ireland was definitely represented on the big screen in Toronto this year.

Calm with Horses tells the story of Douglas ‘Arm’ Armstrong, an ex-boxer, who has been adopted into the deadly Devers family. Used as a muscle man, particularly by Daimhin Devers (Barry Keoghan), he is treated like a lap dog doing the violent bidding for the family and he is also kept on a very short leash. At the centre of the film is the struggle of Arm and where his loyalty lies. Is he loyal to the adopted family that ‘protects’ him or to his actual family that he must protect? At first, the audience is led to believe that Arm should be hated and is a violent thug at heart, but then, as the story unfolds, we see the person behind the brutally-violent actions.

The catalyst of this thriller-crime drama is when Arm must choose to either kill a man for the Devers or provide money for the education of his five year-old autistic son, Jack. The viewer is thrown into the action of the film almost immediately, only discovering the motives behind the actions of the characters as the story reveals itself. The brutality and unyielding wrath of the Dever family illustrates clearly, the fact, that they will stop at nothing to maintain their power in the community, even at the expense of Arm.

Violent from the get go, this film is not for the faint-hearted. After seeing this film with a Canadian audience, it was almost amusing to hear the loud gasps and shock from audience members at the most violent scenes. Not that the violence is amusing but, Canadian audiences, I have found, are very vocal when watching films in the cinema.

With a similar vibe of RTÉ’s Love/Hate, Irish viewers, I think, will enjoy this thriller. Set in  rural Ireland, Calm with Horses puts a spin on the gangland drama usually set in Irish cities. Trained eyes may recognise some of the backdrop of the Irish countryside throughout the drama (filmed in both Galway and Clare).

The slow pace of the film reflects the lifestyle of the characters and the community they inhabit; their simple survival for money and opportunity while wanting a better life. The depiction of rural Irish life is true to form, where the community knows or think they know everything about you. The isolation and judgement one feels is shown particularly well as it affects the character of Ursula, in her desire to escape the judgemental town they live in. Ursula is condemned by the community as they accuse her of giving her son Jack his medical condition.

Despite the brutal violence in the film, the story is juxtaposed with moments of calm as the title suggests. As Arm tries to bond with his son, Jack, it is clear that he has not grasped the concept of Jack’s medical condition and diagnosis, unlike Jack’s mother, Ursula. Played by Niamh Algar, Ursula provides the voice of reason to Arm, trying to release the grasp the Dever family have over him.

Headed by a heavy Irish cast including outstanding performances from Barry Keoghan and Ned Dennehy (Peaky Blinders), as well as American born actor Cosmo Javis (Lady Macbeth) taking the lead role of Arm in the film. Calm with Horses is from the DMC Film production company. The production company, founded by Michael Fassbender and Conor McCaughan, and producer Daniel Emmerson developed the project with Film4 as Nick Rowland’s feature directorial debut.

Most importantly, it was nice to have the opportunity to watch an Irish film in Toronto on the big screen being so far from home. After supporting many different world cinemas throughout the festival, such as Latin America, Spain, France, Japan, India and Africa to name but a few, it was fantastic to get to experience this film with a very packed Canadian audience excited to see Ireland represented on screen.

 

Calm with Horses had its world premiere 8th September 2019 at the Toronto International Film Festival.

‎The Toronto International Film Festival 2019 took place 5–15 September 2019.

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Review of Irish Film @ Cork Film Festival: Crash and Burn

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Aoife O’Neill was in pole position at the Cork Film Festival for a screening of Crash and Burn, Seán Ó Cualáin’s documentary about Tommy Byrne from Dundalk, who, in the ’80s, for a moment was the world’s greatest F1 driver.

 

In the words of director Seán Ó Cualáin, Crash and Burn is one of the most “important sporting stories never told”, until now. The documentary follows the story of Tommy Byrne, a local lad from Drogheda with big ambitions and talent to match. From humble beginnings of driving a mini cooper, he wins every race that is set in front of him and finally gets the opportunity to race for Formula One.

 

However, getting to the Formula One platform was easier than staying there. This documentary is not just a sport film, this is a character portrait of a man’s struggles to come to terms with a career that has passed.

 

Born in the back of a car rushing to get to the hospital, it seems Byrne’s need for speed and cars was there since birth. According to himself, he learnt more from crashing than anything else, even though crashing for Byrne was rare. Driving each race as if it were his last, Byrne often struggled to finance his racing dream. Were it not for the support of friends and family financing his dreams from across the pond, Byrne may not have achieved what he did. His struggles to get from one race to the next adds suspense in the documentary and that audience constantly wonders how Byrne will be able to continue to race against his highly sponsored competitors.

 

Byrne’s, at times, abrasive personality rubbed many of the major names in the world of racing the wrong way. This is in conflict with the audiences appreciation of his blunt character, which makes for humorous viewing and honest critique of the sport. The documentary is comprised of interviews with Byrne’s colleagues and friends who helped with the documentary by supplying achieve footage and photographs of Byrne in his previous racing days. The mix of animation, interviews, live action and archive footage sequences enhances the documentary, with the archived footage giving a vintage, VHS charm.

 

It is through one animation sequence that we see the paths of Ayrton Senna and Tommy Byrne cross, as the once teammates didn’t have the most amorous relationship. Similarly, this film has parallels with that of Senna (2010), both films highlight the dangers and corruption that is involved in the world of racing. Unlike Senna, Byrne struggled to finance his races and didn’t have a choice between winning or not; either win or it is the last race.

 

Producer David Burke explains that the documentary humbly began with a series of emails. Although Byrne was skeptical of the documentary at first, he was told that at least it would be the “best home movie for your grandkids”. However, Crash and Burn is far better than a home movie and a must-see documentary. Byrne’s flamboyant character and good sense of humour is endearing and engaging. Having met him after the screening it is safe to say that he is the same in the real life as he is captured in screen.

 

Throughout the film we get an insight into the highs and lows of his career as he was beaten by the system despite being the “best in the world at what he did”. Byrne’s personality on screen makes for an enjoyable and captivating documentary, ironic as it is the same personality blamed for his career downfall. A documentary cleverly crafted for both an outside viewer and an avid fan of racing. Through interviews we are given a fascinating and unique insight into low-level racing. These interviews explain the sport and race system, ensuring the documentary doesn’t fall into niche markets. A truly riveting documentary, that allows for Irish viewers a look at the best racer probably in the world that came from a local town in Drogheda.

 

Crash and Burn screened on 19th November 2016

The Cork Film Festival 2016 runs 11 – 20 November

 

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