Anthony Assad delves into Gerard Barrett’s Glassland, which screened as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival.
John (Jack Reynor) lives a life of monotony driving a taxi, often pulling late night shifts just to keep afloat while playing parent to his alcoholic mother Jean (Toni Collette). When John attempts to sober her up and encourage a reconnection with her younger son Kit (Harry Nagle) all hell breaks loose as John’s off-the-meter pick up jobs take a dark and desperate turn to fund his thankless efforts.
Gerard Barrett’s previous feature Pilgrim Hill was a monumental film from the then debutant writer/director, working from a truly miniscule budget that managed to capture the hearts and minds of audiences nationwide, even skimming the pond to achieve resonance across UK, US and Chinese theatres in 2013. Going on to garner the Rising Star Award at the IFTAs meant that expectations were inevitably sky high in the run-up to that all important second feature and I’m happy to say the Dublin premiere of Glassland at this year’s Jameson Dublin International Film Festival proved that his is a star still on a safe and steady rise.
Swapping the rural for the urban may seem like quite a risqué tonal shift but just like the former environs of Pilgrim Hill, Dublin in Glassland is similarly populated by the lost and lonely-hearted with tense familial relations and tethered responsibilities once again the resounding themes. All of these rest upon John’s shoulders who’s caught up in the same vicious circle day after day, he wonders when his mother will come home knowing full well that when she does he’ll have to pick up the pieces. His nights prove just as loathsome with wheels spinning running circles around the city streets picking up strangers and sex workers for a living that quite simply isn’t living. Reynor carries the role with an air of disembodiment, channelling a husk of young man weighed down by the duties an absent father and self-destructive mother have forced upon him. During a habitual visit to A&E, however, the doctors’ reveal that Jean is effectively drinking herself to death and an intervention is at hand, which she’ll prove to fight tooth and nail against.
As such, Toni Collette delivers a ferocious performance as Jean, a granite-faced ghost of a woman walking among the living, haunting her son and would be saviour for prolonging a life she feels has long since past, hers to end however and whenever she so wishes. And yet, there’s a soft core, evoked by an impromptu party scene fuelled by cheap wine and music administered by John to loosen tongues and heartstrings so to get to the bottom of what she’s been running from before going cold turkey. The means to this end is an expertly poised scene as mother and son dance in each other’s arms to Soft Cell’s ‘Tainted Love’ before a clever jump cut leads us towards a harrowing confession that really pushes the prowess of the proceedings, especially Reynor and Collette’s quietly chaotic heart to heart, a world away from the dish throwing teeth baring savagery of prior scenes and yet all the more powerful.
The rest from the wicked is shared among scenes with John and Shane (Will Poulter), his go-to friend whose antics provide some welcome, if not sometimes, guiltily enjoyed comic relief (the video-store dust-up comes to mind). It’s not just a pit stop from the drama however as Barrett creates an interesting duality between the two to highlight the life John has been deprived of. Shane is jobless, living at home off his all too accommodating mother and plotting a hell-raising break away from Dublin, in-between the important stuff like playing video games and avoiding movie rental fees for his own obnoxious amusement. He also found time to father a young child from a one-night stand, obviously not ideal scenarios but these follies of youth are rites of passage, mistakes John can never afford to make (and learn from) when forced instead to look after a stranger in his own home who breaks his heart everyday. Accordingly Reynor downplays the gaiety of their activities, more a silent observer, seeking to revert to his friend’s carefree mind-set but constantly aware and distracted by the myriad of responsibilities all around him.
John’s only fault is that his heart is too big, he alone attends his brother Kit’s eighteenth birthday party struggling to explain why their mother isn’t present and why Kit can’t live with them when in truth it’s because Jean never accepted and blames her life’s downfall because of his down syndrome. Again John is playing the parent and the older brother, the latter letting loose when he joyrides at his brother’s request, and in tow, around an empty car park. When he’s forced to reprimand his mother and drag her to a rehab clinic John’s pushed beyond his limits and loses it, as much for her sake as his, in a stand-out scene that reverberates throughout the rest of the movie and long after the credits roll.
She needs 24-hour surveillance for at least a month to sober-up in a controlled environment where she can push through the withdrawal but even a favour from former addict and councillor Jim (Michael Smiley) is an expense John can only afford if he ups his dark dealings with an illegal trafficker. He’s given an address to pick ‘something’ up for delivery and the resulting scene proves how far into hell and back again he’s willing to venture for his family. He enters the desolate house on the outskirts of town tip-toeing from darkness into light with the camera creeping along behind him like Peter Pan’s shadow, mocking what little innocence he has left in a heart-stopping scene paced to perfection.
There’s heaps of drama (some of it heavy-handed), but the moments of silence coupled with long locked-off compositions of seemingly natural light illuminating unnatural events will either pull you to the edge of your seat or out of the narrative. Yes, the pace may upset some, but it’s a journey that avoids the pitfalls of its genre (gratuitous sex and violence) to reach a destination fuelled by an earnest and unflinching eye.
Deservedly the film went on to win Best Film at the Galway Film Fleadh complimenting Reynor’s nod at Sundance for his outstanding performance and recently picked up the Best Irish Film award at JDIFF and the Michael Dwyer Discovery for cinematographer Piers McGrail’s inimitable contribution. This really is Irish cinema at its best, a truly transcendent and palpable experience shedding glorious light on an issue all too relevant from a bold and emphatic director at the top of his game.
Glassland screened on Friday, 27th March 2015 at the Light House Cinema as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival.