The 13 Best Irish Films of The 21st Century So Far
Ireland’s film industry has been booming in recent years, with productions such as Penny Dreadful, Ripper Street, Love & Friendship, Game Of Thrones, The Lobster and even (briefly) the latest Star Wars filming on these shores in the past year among others, not to mention indigenous projects such as Brooklyn and The Secret Scripture.
Factors such as tax breaks, the rich landscape, architectural heritage (a lot of those are period productions) have contributed to this boom, but it is also thanks to the country’s wealth of talent in front of and behind the camera. Film-makers such as Gerard Barrett and Terry McMahon as well as actors such as Saoirse Ronan and Jack Reynor are just the most headline-grabbing of these emerging talents (mesmerising seven-minute short Angel is a fine example) and it’s them that this list celebrates.
How do you define ‘Irish film’? A lot of the following are multi-national co-productions and funded abroad, as you’d expect from a country so small. But the titles on this list are made possible mainly thanks to Irish talent, and tackle issues related to Ireland. This has led to stories as diverse as austere dramas, war films and even a transgender road movie, what seems to unite them is the staunchly Irish juxtaposition of the humorous with the tragic.
For nothing could be more tragic than the amount of Irishmen who will pause a screening of Braveheart (filmed here in the mid nineties) at the famous mooning scene, scrutinise the sea of extras with bare backsides, point to one and boast: ‘That’s my arse,’
In no particular order –
1. In Bruges (Martin McDonagh, 2008)
Acclaimed playwright Martin McDonagh (Seven Psychopaths, The Cripple Of Inishmaan) set out to ‘prove that I could make a film’. His first attempt, short Six Shooter, won him an Academy Award. The mercilessly black In Bruges was his second, and remains his finest artistic achievement to date. You can see his theatrical background all over it, and while many plays become awkward in the transition from stage to screen, In Bruges is a good argument for screenwriters who have a similar grounding in theatre.
The film opens with Ken (Brendan Gleeson) and Ray (Colin Farrell), two Dublin hitmen sent to Bruges to lay low after a job gone wrong. Ken, an older man, takes to the trip like an eager Guide To Bruges-wielding tourist, while Ray moans and sulks as if he’s an overgrown teenager (‘What’s up there?’ ‘The view.’ ‘ The view of down here? I can see that from down here…’). We know what nefarious characters these two are, but we can’t help but be taken in by them and their relentless bickering, especially when we discover the underlying moral dilemma they both face.
For the medieval town of Bruges soon becomes a purgatory where our protagonists await reckoning, as we discover the awful mistake Ray made for which boss Harry (the hilarious Ralph Fiennes) has decreed he must pay with his life. From here the film takes on a thriller element which raises interesting questions about redemption and personal morality.
What makes In Bruges such a special film, aside from its humour (‘I mean no disrespect, but you’re a c***…’) and tremendous atmosphere is how character driven it is – bizarre for a film that could so easily have been sub-standard pulp. Every development comes from one of the characters acting out of their own desire to do what they (bafflingly) believe is morally correct, leading to an unforgettable, conflicting drama.
But as this drama is taking place, McDonagh allows his character’s natural wit to flow, handling what could be a tonal nightmare with aplomb. This embrace of the absurd, coupled with these weighty themes leads to one of the most haunting endings ever committed to film.
In Bruges won Colin Farrell a Golden Globe and McDonagh another Oscar nomination, with strong critical praise and an enthusiastic cult fan base. YouTube has twenty minutes of deleted scenes which are worth a look too.
2. Hunger (Steve McQueen, 2008)
Hunger is the appropriately brutal, unflinching dramatisation of the final days of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands (a breakthrough role for Michael Fassbender) and is the first feature by Steve McQueen of Shame and 12 Years A Slave fame.
The film refuses to take sides on the political situation it depicts, and here lies its core strength. It is instead compassionately preoccupied with the environment and mindset which made Bobby Sands capable of sacrificing himself the way he did – and detail it it does, in an agonising yet level final act. The humanity which McQueen allows us to see in every person in the film – on both sides – lights up the unforgiving setting, and this is what makes Hunger special (and at times watchable).
With this in mind it is appropriate that – at once displaying the structural genius of the film – we open from the perspective of an ordinary prison guard (Stuart Graham). His face gaunt, his knuckles bloody. He checks under his car before driving to work. It is with him that we first enter Belfast’s notorious prison The Maze, and through him that we get our sole further respite from it, although that scene is as horrifying as anything.
It is almost a third of the way through Hunger before we are violently introduced to Bobby Sands himself, and by then we’ve seen the faeces-smeared cells, the riots, the malnourished bodies – narrated by Maggie Thatcher herself – the landscape is vivid and we know how much is at stake.
Filled with raw, visual poetry, Hunger’s finest moment is its centrepiece, a twenty-two minute two-hander shown mostly in one long take, when Sands is visited by a Priest (Liam Cunningham). Here we get our greatest insight into the character and what drives him, and from here on he’s hard to doubt. If great acting is about reacting, then Sands’ commitment and how lost he is to his fate can be seen all over the face of Cunningham’s Priest.
Hunger devastates us with good purpose, proving what a tragedy such conflicts are for both sides and humanity as a whole, earning McQueen a deserved Best First Feature award at Cannes.
3. Patrick’s Day (Terry McMahon, 2014)
Director Terry McMahon courted controversy in 2011 with his debut, a satirical thriller called Charlie Casanova. A film he described as his ‘punk rock statement’, it was a feature made for the impressive sum of E1000 with the aid of a cast and crew assembled mostly through Facebook. Casanova was more than a bit rough around the edges, but McMahon kept that provocative streak for his second effort – and caused a stir for all the right reasons.
Patrick’s Day tells the story of Patrick (Moe Dunford) a young man in his late twenties who suffers from schizophrenia. We open at Dublin’s St. Patrick’s Day parade with Patrick on day release from the institution he calls home, having a day out with Mother Maura (Kerry Fox) to celebrate his birthday. Together they enjoy a fun fair, buy novelty hats, eat candy floss and do everything you would do with a ten year old on his birthday.
But when Patrick and Maura get separated in the crowd, Patrick meets Karen (Catherine Walker) who is a bit tipsy and takes a liking to him. ‘I have schizophrenia,’ he feels compelled to blurt out to her, ‘Sure haven’t we all?’ is her response.
Patrick falls for Karen, to Maura’s horror. She drives her son back to the institution, and even enlists a detective (Philip Jackson) to help her convince him that Karen is merely one of his delusions. Patrick is rocked, forced to confront the draconian way he is treated because of his illness, and is compelled to escape and find her. Or at least find out if she’s fictitious.
Patrick’s Day is a remarkable piece addressing the lingering stigma surrounding mental illness, and a mentally ill person’s right to intimacy. It is a fiercely humane drama, one of those rare ones that shatters you then sets you soaring, all the more moving for extending its understanding toward well-meaning antagonist Maura.
And that’s not an easy task, in a film reminiscent of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. The writing is snappy (‘Only a woman could demolish you with a compliment,’ grumbles Jackson’s beleaguered detective) and it’s well shot too, McMahon and DoP Michael Lavelle filling it with expressive images.
‘Patrick is a twenty-six year old schizophrenic virgin…’ was the entirety of the blurb for it at my local cinema, and that captures this film’s mischievous spirit.
It has just been added to the line-up at Cannes.
4. Breakfast on Pluto (Neil Jordan, 2005)
‘Serious, serious, serious,’
Breakfast On Pluto marks the second collaboration between director Neil Jordan and novellist Pat McCabe, which first brought the positive results of 1997’s disturbing The Butcher Boy. Here Jordan adapts McCabe’s picaresque tale of transgender Patrick/icia ‘Kitten’ Braden’s (a committed Cillian Murphy) quest to find the Mother who abandoned her on church steps as a newborn.
It is relevant to note the differences between novel and film here, as in the novel Kitten’s name is ‘Pussy’, and her sexual activities are written about explicitly whereas in the film they’re either dropped or merely alluded to.
Rather than being an example of prudish censorship, this decision adds layers to the film. It gives Kitten a yearning, unfulfilled quality as well as an odd kind of innocence. This makes her a fascinating protagonist to lead us through this macabre kaleidoscope of glam rockers, IRA nutters, soldiers, abusive cops, prostitution and small town small mindedness.
Her elaborate persona and the fairytale she has constructed around her adventures compensate for a great deal of pain under the surface, and this makes you determined that she’ll find solace in all of this lunacy. Its episodic structure ties together well in the end and it puts you in mind of a few great films, at one point strongly of Paris, Texas.
Critics reacted to it with wrinkled noses upon its release ten years ago (57% on Rotten Tomatoes) but a lot of those poorer reviews could be accused of nearsightedness. Breakfast On Pluto is a weird ride for sure, but also a nuanced and heartening one, following a resilient lead through a world of causes and allegiances that bring no joy nor make much sense.
5. Glassland (Gerard Barrett, 2014)
Jack Reynor is the latest Irish actor to hit the big time, landing one of the main roles in last year’s mega grossing Transformers abomination. The films he has chosen since, however, prove him to be an actor of depth and integrity, Glassland being a fine example. His breakthrough part in manslaughter drama What Richard Did won rave reviews and got him where he is today, but it’s here that he truly justifies the hype, winning an award at Sundance among others.
Reynor plays John, a Dublin taxi driver in his early twenties. In an early scene which tells us all, John walks into his dingy kitchen which is messy and unkempt to the point where it might next crumble into dust. He waters down the milk so there’s enough for his cereal, fishes a dirty spoon from under a pile of dishes in the sink.
This is John’s life, straining to hold together a family that includes a brother who has Down syndrome and lives in care and his Mother Jean (Toni Collette, inept at the accent) who is a slave to alcoholism. John is a knot of despair and frustration, which Reynor conveys with subtleties which say everything, such as a relentlessly tapping foot as the rest of him sits passive.
John’s struggles to get help for Jean – who bounces from frenzied rage to pathetic vulnerability and back – is the heart of this film, as is the well-drawn relationship between him and best mate Shane (Will Poulter). But this isn’t the whole story, as once Jean accepts help they face multiplying debts with nobody to help them and meagre Government support, forcing John to turn to more illicit ways of making money.
A good example of the sparse, austere ‘recession dramas’ Irish filmmakers have been producing in recent years, Glassland is also a showcase for the talents of director Gerard Barrett, still just 27 years old. His ability is evident particularly in a scene toward the end, where John drives up to a crumbling old mansion in the middle of nowhere.
We know he’s there to transport something for some bad people, we don’t know what it is but we know it’s not good. The way Barrett infuses the scene with a leaden dread, unbearably quiet until it hits you with a bang, is worthy of any great master of horror but is all the more effective for coming in a character drama.
His directorial bow Pilgrim Hill is worth finding too.
6. Good Vibrations (Lisa Barros D’Sa, Glenn Leyburn, 2012)
The colour scheme of Good Vibrations is striking, with its juxtaposition of earthy greens and browns with the more outrageous colours favoured by punk rockers. And this of course fits perfectly with its subject.
It tells us the story of Terri Hooley (Richard Dormer) – spelt with one ‘i’ as, well, he only had one eye – who was a rebellious hellraiser in ’70s Belfast when the Troubles began. Refusing to take sides, he found himself ‘with no mates’ in a city divided. His reaction? To open a record shop and found a music label on ‘the most bombed street in Belfast’ in an attempt to reanimate the city and divert the youth from violence with his latest discovery – punk rock.
Good Vibrations is a symphony of feel-good moments, and is all the more effective for its changeability. As we follow the infectious and spirited Hooley, every glorious triumph, each epiphany is stamped on by the swift arrival of inevitable disaster.
Take for example a moment that takes place in the middle of the film, after a young band come to Hooley with their record. The band is The Undertones, the record is their immortal ‘Teenage Kicks’. He manages to get it into the hands of legendary BBC DJ John Peel. Peel loved it so much its lyrics are his epitaph.
The song comes on over the radio in the Hooley household. Everything about the scene from its staging to the unexpected twist in that moment as ‘Teenage Kicks’ fills the air is fantastic, one of those precious, rare moments in cinema that can be described as joyous to the point of delirium inducing. That this moment comes halfway through the film, when most ‘feel good’ films would have it as the ending, shows what an interesting and ultimately more rewarding film this is.
The story of Good Vibrations was in production Hell for years. While various filmmakers attempted to get it off the ground, Hooleys record shops closed down and reopened repeatedly, and he was the subject of a petition to get him to run for Mayor of Belfast.
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