It’s been awhile, dear friends, but never fear, Popcorn Dinner is back! Ages ago I did a post about my favourite English movies promising more movie snapshots from the British Isles in the future. The time is now! I dubbed March “Irish Movie Month” (and yes, I recognize it’s now almost May, but that’s sometimes how long these things take) and had loads of fun watching a bunch of films with a distinctly Irish flavour. I’ve never actually been to Ireland – an oversight from my time living in the UK that I hope to rectify someday soon – but here’s an overview of what I’ve learned about the country from the movies, whatever your mood or preferences…
The Guilt-laden Romance:
Set in 1950s Ireland, Circle of Friends is the quintessentially Irish story of teenagers torn between traditional religious values and raging hormones. With a highly recognizable cast in supporting roles – Alan Cumming as the creepy Sean Walsh, Ciarán Hinds as the liberal sociology professor, and Colin Firth as the dashing older aristocrat – it traces the lives of three best friends from their small-town upbringing to higher education in the big city of Dublin. Take home message: Irish Catholic guilt meets the sexual revolution.
A refreshing, charming, Irish take on guitar-playing guy meets piano-playing girl. Set on the streets of Dublin and made on a shoestring budget, Once is real, awkward, and heartfelt without feeling overly earnest or sentimental. Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová (who were once an item off-screen as well) have effortless chemistry which gets communicated primarily through the character’s song-writing partnership. Take home message: Dublin is for lovers.
A subcategory of the Irish romance movie genre is rom coms that use Ireland as a setting for American characters to find love (PS I Love You, Leap Year, Laws of Attraction). The best of these in my opinion is 1997’s The Matchmaker with Janeane Garofalo – the cynical yet charming antithesis of a cookie-cutter romantic leading lady. The plot conspires to send Garofalo, a senator’s aide, to research her boss’s Irish ancestors coincidentally during the town’s annual matchmaking festival where qualified matchmakers pair up hopeful singles who flock there each year. Apparently this is totally a thing in Ireland (and was so way before match.com), but it happens in County Clare’s Lisdoonvarna and not the film’s fictional town of Ballinagra (those looking for an international booty call can check out Lisdoonvarna’s official Matchmaker website). The script relies a little too heavily on stereotypical Celtic charm and the plot is somewhat obvious and contrived (even for a rom com), but for fans of Garofalo’s self-deprecating humour and gorgeous Irish scenery, The Matchmaker delivers. Take home message: Matchmaking is a lost art.
Of course, there is a much darker side to Ireland as well. There has been devastating oppression, violence, and bloodshed as part of the region’s history and politics – considerable material for intense weighty dramas, if that’s more your thing. There’s a number of these I haven’t seen like Paul Greengrass’ Bloody Sunday which received multiple honours on the festival circuit in 2002 and Michael Collins starring Liam Neeson as the instrumental figure in Ireland’s fight for independence.
While I skipped Michael Collins, I did catch The Wind That Shakes the Barley when it came out in 2006. It had similar subject matter and told the story of two brothers (Cillian Murphy and Pádraic Delaney) ideologically torn in the midst of the anti-British rebellion in the early 1920s. I honestly don’t remember a whole lot about this film other some spectacular cinematography, that it seemed to drag a bit, and was rather painful to watch in terms of heart wrenching content. Critics seemed to like it though as it captured the coveted Palme D’Or at Cannes. Take home message: War… What is it good for?…
In the Name of the Father (1993)
No list of Irish-themed movies is complete without In the Name of the Father, set in the 1970s and based on the real life story of the “Guildford Four”, a group of four innocent people convicted of a brutal IRA bombing. Daniel Day-Lewis is phenomenal as the petty thief and all-around troublemaker Gerry Conlon who is falsely accused, viciously interrogated, and wrongly convicted of a terrible crime. His family is likewise investigated and convicted to long prison sentences for aiding and abetting the crime. The incomparable Pete Postlethwaite plays the disappointed yet optimistic father with superb nuance and depth. Both master actors play off each other well to convey the tensions, hostilities, and eventual grudging respect in a strained father-son relationship enduring unimaginable circumstances. Despite the riveting performances, I found the plot loses some steam, and was glad for Emma Thompson’s appearance as the vigilant lawyer committed to correcting the injustice to help move things along. Take home message: Irish fathers know best.
Based on Frank McCourt’s bestselling memoir of the same name, Angela’s Ashes runs contrary to the romanticized, lush, green version of Ireland we see portrayed in a lot of films. Young Frankie McCourt narrates this bleak tale of growing up amidst abuse, poverty, and alcoholism in Limerick. The movie received a lot of criticism for the dark, dismal visuals and the omission of McCourt’s characteristic dry humour, arguably what made the book the phenomenon it was. I was fully prepared to dislike the movie because I am a huge fan of the book, and I usually find the translation of books to film lacking, but I liked the movie version, mostly on the strength of the performances by Robert Carlyle (Angela’s ne’er do well husband) and Emily Watson (Angela). Take home message: “Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood. And worse still is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.”
My Left Foot (1989)
If great acting is your thing, My Left Foot is a must-see. The film tells the life story of Christy Brown – from growing up with cerebral palsy in working class Ireland to his eventual acclaim as an artist and writer. Brown created all of his work using his left foot – the only part of his body over which he had complete motor control. Daniel Day-Lewis’ brilliance playing the adult Christy Brown cannot be overstated (and was acknowledged with a Best Actor statue that year). Day-Lewis infamously remained in character throughout the film’s production. Brown is a complex character (as most geniuses are) and the movie frames his story as one of both inspiration and candid emotional turmoil. Take home message: Never bet against Irish grit and determination.
The Commitments (1991)
Glen Hansard makes another appearance here as one of the band members of The Commitments, a motley group of musicians assembled to bring soul to the music scene in Dublin. The film rests on the drive and ambition of manager Jimmy Rabbitte (played by Robert Atkins) as well as the tensions, attractions, and outright hostilities between the bandmates. It also features Maria Doyle Kennedy in her acting debut, who is now well-known to many for her impressive TV résumé which includes Downton Abbey, Dexter, and The Tudors. The Commitments is a great character-driven film capturing the turmoil and yearnings of working class Dublin. Take home message: Soul “grabs you by the balls and lifts you above the shite”.
The Quirky Comedy:
Ending on a lighter note, there are some charming comedies that feature a distinctly Irish flavour. Try War of the Buttons (1994) – sort of a cross between Lord of the Flies and Stand By Me. Based on a French novel and film, La Guerre Des Boutons, the Irish adaptation pits the boys from Ballydowse against the neighbouring wealthier Carrickdowse gang. Captured members of either faction would be subjected to the humiliation of having all of the buttons and laces cut from their clothes, and face the wrath of their parents when they returned home with their school uniforms ruined. A particularly memorable scene involves the “Bally” boys storming down an Irish hillside in the buff to shock and horrify their enemy. Good, fun, wholesome family entertainment. Take home message: Sometimes wars need to finish in time for dinner.
Waking Ned Devine (1998)
A similarly adorable, but perhaps more adult Irish comedy is Waking Ned Devine. Poor old Ned drops dead of shock upon learning that he is the national lottery winner. The news of Ned’s simultaneous good and bad fortune spreads like wildfire in Tullymore, Ned’s tiny hometown in Ireland, and the townsfolk attempt to honour his memory by scamming the big-city lottery officials and claiming his winnings. With all the eccentric characters and captivating scenery, this is one of those purely delightful, lighthearted British films that make me fantasize about immediately packing my bags and moving to just such a small hamlet in rural Ireland, however, the reality of this prospect would probably drive me mad within a couple of days. And that dear friends is the magic of movies… Take home message: Nothing entertains like mischievous Irish shenanigans.