Into Films Review: Arracht – UK Premiere, GFT, Glasgow

Film: Arracht (Monster)
Director: Tom Sullivan
Cinema: Glasgow Film Theatre
Event: UK Premiere Screening with Q&A (featuring Director and Lead Actor)
Date: 2 March 2020

Arracht (Monster) is a searingly austere film which deserves the widest possible audience. Set in the wild and forbidding grounds of the west coast of Ireland (Connemara, to be precise) in 1845 amidst the onset of an Gorta Mór (The Great Hunger), it is impossible not to be emotionally invested in the people portrayed.

The catastrophic potato blight compounded immeasurably by the indifference and greed of the English land-owning classes is the backdrop to this story. Although this aspect of the narrative is compelling enough in its own right, the focus of this murderous ballad is one of individual despair, fortitude, desperation and heroism in equal measure. Ultimately, though, the reality is that this hunger ‘…didn’t just happen to them. It was done to them.’

The central character, Colmán Sharkey, is one of countless victims of the cynical and genocidal appropriation of foodstuff available only to the landowners and the exporters. The chilling throw-away line from the Landowner – Lieutenant that previous blights had incurred  ‘an acceptable mortality rate’ was one of only a few acknowledgements of the real cause of the, estimated, one million deaths in Ireland over the period. The tenor of this film, however, is not one of tub-thumping polemic. In fact, it rarely strays from the personal struggle of the individual and this, without a doubt, gives the film its strength.

Dónall Ó Héalaí made the point, during the Q&A which concluded the event, that the film is a distillation. A chronology, from community in the opening scenes of the film, to family, and finally to the bare bones of individual suffering and isolation. As this Irish-language drama unfolds, it becomes easy to forget, even to an non-Irish speaker that you are watching a sub-titled film. The lyricism of the language itself and the dialogue (which is sparse for long stretches of the film)  disappear into, and becomes an intrinsic part of, the vivid and the powerful emotions they help to convey.

Dónall Ó Héalaí who plays the lead role, Colmán Sharkey, a peasant farmer, turns in an outstanding performance. Dónall’s performance is the equal of Michael Fassbender’s Macbeth, without the Hollywood big-bucks production values. Believe me, it’s that good! He dropped four stone for the part in four months, giving him a presence which is a metaphor for what the whole nation of Ireland suffered. The budget (€1.2M), is, by any measure, extremely tight for a feature-length film, but is more than compensated for by Kate McCullough’s extremely accomplished cinematography.

It was noted by one audience member during the Q&A session that bringing the film to Glasgow, which is the only major city in the world with an immigrant Irish population to not have a memorial funded from civic and official coffers to those who perished and those who fled from the ravages an Gorta Mór, added a poignancy to the event.

There are some heart-wrenching and memorable scenes but to describe them here would only spoil your enjoyment of the film. If Tom Sullivan’s feature-length directorial debut gets a major distribution deal, make sure you take the chance to see it. The humanity of this story is almost overwhelming and is presented with a lightness of touch by both the Director and the cast. The kind of sensitivity and restraint that is rarely seen in movies today.

Tom Sullivan (Director), Dónall Ó Héalaí (Colmán Sharkey) and Eoin O’Dubhghaill (Seán, Colmán’s brother)

The film is due for release in Irish cinemas from 3 April 2020.

Stephen Cameron

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