A Lens on a Troubled Land: Classics of Irish Cinema

Photo of Marcus Clark
30 December 2016

Ireland and Northern Ireland have no shortage of cinematic subject matter over periods of painful history. This, combined with the personality the Irish are famous for, has contributed to the depth of the Irish cinematic canon. Whether sung over the chords of a guitar or hiding in a Belgian bedsit, Irish and Northern Irish film opens avenues of cultural insight into the island’s boisterously beating heart.

My Left Foot (1989)

Daniel Day Lewis famously took method acting to extreme levels when taking on the role of Christy Brown, an Irishman born with cerebral palsy and only the use of his right foot. Members of the production team had to take him to the toilet and feed him whilst remaining completely in character on set. Suffering for his art he even broke two ribs due to being continually hunched over in a wheelchair during production. The dedication and near complete embodiment of Christy is apparent when watching My Left Foot and the role deserves nothing less considering the remarkable nature of Christy’s life, overcoming disability to be a successful writer and artist. Day Lewis’s performance earned him his first Academy Award for Best Actor.

Hunger (2008)

Speaking of suffering for your cause, Michael Fassbender went on a medically monitored crash diet in order to accurately portray the alarming famine like starkness of Bobby Sand’s hunger strike. Depicting the events around and leading up to this, Steve McQueen’s directorial début looks at the treatment of Irish political prisoners in Maze prison in 1981. Making the successful transition from exhibition artist to full time feature filmmaker McQueen relentlessly presents the audience with image after provocative image when displaying the full horrors of the treatment of the prisoners. Balancing the bleak with the beautiful, Hunger is an agonisingly moving, and at times, upsetting film.

The Wind that Shakes the Barley (2006)

A significant historical vignette from the king of gritty cinema himself, Ken Loach, The Wind that Shakes the Barley is an important account of the Irish War of Independence and the resulting Irish Civil War that followed the establishment of the free state in 1922. The film’s presentation of historical events and portrayal of the Irish guerrilla freedom fighters and English oppressors sparked wide debate and controversy with some debating its historical accuracy however, the gripping and powerful nature of the drama cannot be denied. It is a crucial offering which engages with Irish independence as a social revolution as well as a nationalist one.

The Commitments (1991)

Winning the Best Film BAFTA in 1991, and adapted from the novel of the same name by Roddy Doyle, this feel-good romp tells the story of a group of aspiring working class Dublinite musicians brought together by Jimmy Rabbitte’s (Robert Arkins) dream of managing the greatest soul band Ireland and the world has ever seen. Alan Parker’s decision to cast musicians with little to no acting experience in a number of the key roles was a risky one, but came together nicely in the ecstatic performances of the band. As a result the film features wonderfully orchestrated musical set pieces which are even more enjoyable for their authenticity and genuine sense of live gig bawdiness.

Bloody Sunday (2002)

Before Paul Greengrass was helping to redefine the spy genre with jerky camera flick The Bourne Supremacy (2004), he was gripping audiences with his powerful début on the 1972 Bloody Sunday shootings when fourteen Northern Irish anti internment demonstrators were killed at a protest march in Derry. Looking at the events through the eyes of Ivan Cooper (James Nesbitt) an SDLP Member of the Northern Irish Parliament and lead proponent of the march itself, the film garnered critical and audience acclaim when making the rounds at international festivals including Sundance and Berlin.

In the Name of the Father (1993)

Based on the life story of the Guildford Four, director Jim Sheridan turns the camera on Gerry Conlon (Daniel Day Lewis) one of the men wrongly and unjustly convicted of the IRA’s Guildford pub bombing. Typically, Daniel Day Lewis spent nights in the set’s jail cell and persuaded crew members to soak him repeatedly with ice cold water and constantly abrade him with obscenities and verbal abuse in order to prepare for the role. An astonishing story of widespread corruption at the highest levels, human rights abuse, and the victims of state powers and scapegoating this intensely powerful film was nominated for seven academy awards.

Kisses (2008)

Directed by Lance Daly, Kisses follows eleven year old Dylan (Shane Curry) and neighbourhood friend Kylie (Kelly O’Neill), two restless young ragamuffins as they up sticks and run away to Dublin together to escape their abusive families and add direction to their lives. This heart-warming coming of age story encapsulates the torments and dramas of adolescent life and whilst some may find it sentimental the film’s integrity undeniably shines through in the performances of the two lead actors. The soundtrack, primarily made up of Bob Dylan songs, suits the tone of the film giving the wandering adolescent souls a languid musical background.

The Crying Game (1992)

The Crying Game | © Miramax Film

When IRA soldier Fergus (Stephen Rea) connects with a hostage the group have taken prisoner (Forest Whitikar), he vows to protect his girlfriend Dil (Jaye Davidson) with whom he forms an unexpected romance, upon which events quickly slip from Fergus’s control. Originally titled ‘The Soldier’s Wife’ (Stanley Kubrick persuaded writer-director Neil Jordan to change the title) the film is famous for its unexpected twist which gives the subsequent action and romance a whole new level of profundity and gravitas, and moves it beyond the love triangle narrative to something altogether more interesting. Despite a shoe string budget of just over two million, the film ended up making over sixty million at the box office, partly due to the film’s controversial themes but also due to its undoubted power and bravery.

Once (2006)

Set amidst the romanticised underbelly of Dublin’s quixotic nooks and crannies, an everyday encounter sees street crooner Guy (Glen Hansard) meet and fall in love with a young Czech immigrant (Markéta Irglová). The two bond over music, writing and rehearsing together, charting their past and present loves with a fragile and dreamy shoe gazing soundscape. Professional musicians rather than actors, Hansard and Irglová composed and performed the film’s entire original soundtrack together, therein creating the film’s emotional power. The pair’s penchant for musical intimacy is remarkably genuine, and is echoed in the relationship between the two characters on screen. Watching the bubbling chemistry between them, it’s not surprising to learn that the pair formed a brief romance while promoting the film on a tour across America.

In Bruges (2008)

In Martin McDonagh’s transition to feature film greenhorn hit man Ray (Colin Farrell) is sent by sociopathic employer and crime boss Harry Waters (Ralph Fiennes) to lay low in Bruges after a hit gone bad. With no one for company but senior assassin and colleague Ken (Brendan Gleeson) the two quickly get under each other’s skin, less than enthused with the magical medieval town. With line after quotable line, black hole comedy, and Ken and Ray’s politically incorrect attitude towards nearly everything, there is no denying that In Bruges is a cult classic in the making. Martin McDonagh’s hotly anticipated return, Seven Psychopaths, was chosen to be screened at the 2012 BFI London film festival.

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