Column from March 2008
In honour of St Paddy’s Day, here’s a look at some of my favourite Irish flicks.
The top grossing Irish film of all-time is the sleeper hit The Crying Game (1992), starring Forest Whittaker and Miranda Richardson, about a British soldier captured by the IRA who finds himself drawn into their world. The film was carried by Jaye Davidson, as a very convincing cross dresser who seduces Whittaker. The hype was a bit excessive, but it remains a good watch and provides excellent insight into the Irish ‘troubles.’
The more optimistic The Commitments (1991) tells the story of a group of working-class, Wilson Pickett worshipping, Dublin youth who declare the Irish are ‘the niggers of Europe’ and set out to form their own soul band. There’s the usual melodrama as the band works out its issues, getting gigs and building a fan base – but it’s full of great tunes and you can’t help cheering them on.
John Sales’ The Secret of Roan Inish (1995) explores Irish folklore. A young girl is sent to a remote island to live with her grandparents and discovers she is descended from the seal/human selkie. While slow paced, it cleverly intertwines the mysteries in the present with the supernatural past. A feel-good movie that won’t leave you feeling sick.
The Magdalene Sisters (2002) is one of the most heart-breaking films ever made, based on the true stories of four young women sent to the Magdalene Asylum, a home for wayward girls. Two gave birth out of wedlock, one was raped and the other was simply too flirtatious. They are essentially slaves in the asylum’s laundry, where, under the watchful eye of the nuns they are subjected to physical, sexual and emotional abuse – and if they are to survive, they must escape. Harrowing, especially considering the last of these homes was closed in 1996.
David Lean’s Ryan’s Daughter (1970) is an overlooked great film. Set in a remote village on the Dingle peninsula, far away from the travails of World War One, impetuous Rosy Ryan (Sarah Miles) has just married the middle-aged local schoolmaster (Robert Mitchum) who cannot satisfy her sexually. Tending bar in her father’s pub, she falls for a handsome English officer (Christopher Jones). Self absorbed, she is unaware that her father is involved with the rebels who meet at the pub. Is it Rosy who gives them away to the British? Or is she to be punished for her other sins? A must for serious movie lovers.
Dublin has a population of just over a million. There are 1.2 million New Yorkers claiming Irish heritage, making it the largest Irish city in the world. In America (2003) is one family’s story of trying to make it as new immigrants in the Big Apple in the 80s. Paddy Considine and Samantha Morton star as Johnny and Sarah, a couple running away from their son’s death, trying to start a new life with in Hell’s Kitchen, living amongst junkies, alcoholics and thieves in a condemned tenement. Based on writer/director Jim Sheridan’s own immigrant experience, In America crackles and smoulders with brilliant performances, especially from Djimon Hounsou as an AIDS infected African prince and Sarah and Emma Bolger, real-life sisters who play the couple’s much-loved, but emotionally neglected daughters.
Since The Godfather (1972), Hollywood gangsters have been almost exclusively Italian, easy to forget that the Irish mob dominated the first fifty years of cinema. Like In America, Angels With Dirty Faces (1938) is set in Hell’s Kitchen, with Father Jerry Connelly (Pat O’Brien) trying to save the neighbourhood youth from the mob, headed by his old pal Rocky Sullivan (James Cagney). When a dirty lawyer played by Humphrey Bogart steals a hundred grand from Sullivan a gang war erupts and no one is safe. A classic gangster film – full of sneering, cynical dialog and larger than life characters.
But Irish-American gangsters go way back: Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (2002) is set in 1863 in the Five Points section of Manhattan with Irish immigrant mobsters muscling the natives for position. One of the most violent movies ever made (at one point the blood runs ankle deep), I found it so far over the top, it was more annoying than shocking. Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz do a fine job in their roles, but what makes this a must-see is Daniel Day Lewis’ unbelievable performance as Bill ‘the Butcher’ Cutting – a bone-chillingly cruel monster without a soul. (Day Lewis also stars in two other worthy Irish flicks – In the Name of the Father (1993) and My Left Foot from 1989). Gangs of New York was nominated for best picture Oscar, but Scorsese wouldn’t take home that prize until his next Irish mob movie – The Departed (2006).
Set in that other Irish-American enclave, Boston, The Departed is a remake of the brilliant Chinese spy versus spy thriller, Infernal Affairs (2002). Scorsese recasts it inside the Irish mob with Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio as detectives both working for boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) but on opposite sides of the law. One of the most complex storylines of all-time, Scorsese manages to keep the story on track and the audience on the edge of their seat for two and half hours. Though it pales beside Taxi Driver (1976) or Goodfellas (1990), the Oscar was well deserved.
Also not to be missed, the Coen Brothers’ Miller’s Crossing (1990) pays tribute to the 30s gangster flicks, with Gabriel Byrne as chief advisor to Albert Finney’s Irish mobster. Sleazy women, illegal booze and copious violence combined with classic Coen Brothers’ twisted humour make this near-perfect.
If you’re in the mood for smaller, indy flicks, check out Intermission (2003) with Colin Farrell and Cillian Murphy featuring in a madcap caper of Dublin slackers trying for the big score. Disco Pigs (2001) is an impossibly sad, but poignant tragedy with Cillian Murphy and Elaine Cassidy as Pig and Runt, childhood soul-mates, now teens torn apart by separate desires. It actually made me cry. For some light-hearted fun, I recommend The Most Fertile Man in Ireland (1999) with Kris Marshall as a 24-year-old virgin red-head who finds he, or rather his high sperm count, is the answer to Ireland’s infertility problems. I Went Down (1997) might be a bit of a mission to track down, but this dis-organised crime comedy is twisted enough to make it worth it.
Once (2007) is due out on DVD soon, and proves that musicals don’t need to be overblown affairs. Shot on home video and a shoestring budget, it ran off with the Audience Award at Sundance. Starring non-actors Glen Hansard (of The Frames) and Marketa Irglova, it’s the straightforward story of a Dublin busker’s budding relationship with a piano-playing solo mum. The scenes where the two musicians begin collaborating are some of the most emotionally honest depictions of music-making ever seen on film. And the original songs, written and sung by Hansard and Irglova, are superb.