Dublin City University, Ireland | NUI Galway, Ireland | Published: 15 March, 2015
ISSUE 10 | Pages: 190-235 | PDF | DOAJ | https://doi.org/10.24162/EI2015-5161
2015 by Roddy Flynn and Tony Tracy. This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.
I’m not a big fan of Irish movies, I don’t find them to be technically that accomplished and I don’t find them that intelligent. So I’m trying to get away from the description of the movie as an Irish film in a way.
John Michael McDonagh, 2014
When John Michael McDonagh’s off-hand comments during promotional duties for Calvary were picked up by Irish Times journalist Donald Clarke in September 2014 (Clarke 2014), they provided a timely intervention for academics beginning courses on Irish cinema and provoked an inevitable – and at times inevitably simplistic – backlash across Irish print and broadcast media that bordered – as McDonagh later charged – on thinly veiled xenophobia.1 In a subsequent statement that put the question of Irishness and its ‘privileges’ at the centre of the debate, the writer/director defended his comments and his right to make them by saying:
. . . I was intentionally trying to position Calvary for an international audience. I didn’t want it to be perceived as a small, parochial, “Irish” film. I wanted it to be seen as a universal movie dealing with universal spiritual and philosophical issues . . . What has been most dispiriting to me, however, is the low-level bigotry that has reared its head in the fallout from the interview. I am an Irish citizen, a child of Irish parents, nearly all my friends and work associates are Irish, and yet because I was born in London I supposedly have no right to comment on Irish film.2
Whatever their merits – and indeed their bearing on the construction of Irish settings and characters within McDonagh’s two feature films to date – the furore ignited by these comments served to underline that the meaning and significance of an Irish national cinema remains culturally charged within an era of global media flows.
It’s worth acknowledging that at an industrial level, McDonagh’s comments had some validity. Although the Irish Film Board (IFB) put just under €1m into Calvary (making it one of the Board’s largest ever single investments), this was dwarfed by the British Film Institute’s contribution. In crew terms, aside from McDonagh himself, several of the key Head of Department roles were filled by non-Irish personnel. It’s also worth acknowledging that McDonagh has ‘form’ in his blunt assessment of Irish cinema. Responding to a suggestion in 2011 that The Guard could be understood as one of a number of Irish films blending comedy and violence, he emphasized that any previous films had “been done badly . . . They’re all bad movies.” (Digital Spy 2011). When quizzed if that included (his brother) Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges, he stated that he “wouldn’t count that as an Irish movie because it’s set in Belgium, all the money was American, and he’s
You see the problem is they [audiences] know that lots of Irish films aren’t very good and they’re actually hesitant about going to see the movie themselves. So when you’re making a film there, you’re trying to convince the Irish audience ‘No, it’s not like all those terrible Irish movies you’ve seen before (Clarke 2014).
Compelled to retrieve matters, Irish Film Board Chief Executive James Hickey spoke in moderate language, issuing a statement that welcomed the debate McDonagh’s comments had engendered but politely disagreeing with them, affirming that Calvary was “a very successful Irish film, telling an exciting and challenging Irish story with Irish creative talent in front of and behind the camera” (Hickey 2014).
The debate did, inter-alia, raise larger questions about the nature of the Irish screen texts and the industries that produce them. In particular it drew attention to their increasing integration into international networks of production and distribution. Hitherto, one might assume such integration exclusively meant from above, as Ireland was instrumentalised into the global strategies of an industry still dominated by the US. Of course this remains a crucial (indeed dominant) element there is also evidence of a desire on the part of the Irish production sector to take the initiative in creating projects with the international marketplace in mind. This emphasis on the commercial/export underpinnings of state involvement in Irish film was highlighted in a speech at the Irish Film Institute’s annual ‘Spotlight’ seminars in April 2014, when James Hickey asserted that 2014 would be a “make or break year” for the industry. Calvary was prominent in the list of Irish films Hickey cited as having the potential to ‘make’ an international impact (others cited included Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank and Ken Loach’s latest Irish project Jimmy’s Hall). While it is inarguable that all of those projects provoked critical debate, their commercial success was more varied. Calvary performed modestly well in the critical US market taking $3.6m over 11 weeks, screening in up to 322 cinemas across the US at its peak. Frank was far less successful taking $640,000 over 17 weeks.3
In the UK (and Ireland) a similar pattern was evidenced: despite very positive reviews Frank was only modestly successful, taking approximately €750,000 in the UK and Ireland, while Calvary took €4.4m. Ironically perhaps, Brendan O’Carroll’s unequivocally ‘Irish’ Mrs Brown’s Boys D’Movie (developed from his successful BBC series without IFB development/production funding) far outstripped the performance of either taking over $28m from the UK/Irish/Australia market during summer 2014 (Box Office Mojo). Such comparisons should not be taken as suggesting that these films should be primarily assessed in terms of their financial impact but rather as an acknowledgment that box office revenues reflect the extent to which these titles were able to make an impact upon audiences at home and internationally and potentially contribute to future funding decisions.
Before turning to more fully examine how Irish film and TV is adapting to the networks and platforms of digital age – what Casetti (2012) has described as the age of “relocated cinema” – we should briefly consider the span and ambitions of moving image production in Ireland during 2014. In doing so, it is crucial to acknowledge that a single unifying concept of the national (or indeed ‘film’) is today even more problematic than it was in 1997 (when the IFB was re-established) and that McDonagh’s contrasting between ‘parochial’ and ‘universal’ is in many respects not only a false and deluding dichotomy but a tension that is central to the ways in which Irish moving-image production is conceived, produced and distributed. Ironically, there is perhaps no greater example of this tension than Calvary itself, a film which invokes an existential priest figure drawn from the French Catholic tradition of Bernanos within a highly parochial environment of Irish caricature and sharply contemporary anti-clericism. Indeed, such tensions mark the film as unquestionably the most provocative and original Irish film of 2014 with the usually one-dimensional figure of the Irish priest finally brought in from the margins of cinematic representation only to find himself surrounded by a motley cast of fools, a suicidal daughter, a property developer and several would-be assassins. You could argue that there is nothing ‘universal’ about Calvary at all – other than death and disappointment – except, paradoxically, Brendan Gleeson’s performance as a late vocation rural curate which gives the film a depth and integrity that is undeniable and unavoidable for any audience. Undeniably rooted in a contemporary Irish Catholic context, Gleeson imbues his character with a dignity and moral seriousness that transcends the film’s flimsier moments and what remains is an unsettling portrait of a society that is literally and metaphorically seeking to kill its conscience.
In its narrative focus on a crises in Irish masculinity Calvary is, in thematic focus, absolutely typical of the majority of Irish film and TV. In 2014 this theme underpinned a variety of genres and formats from the micro budget, Out of Here to the comedy Gold, contemporary mental-health drama Patrick’s Day, and a number of rural-set dramas including the Irish language mini-series/feature An Brontannas and Irish-Canadian co-production Stay (starring Aidan Quinn). What Connell would describe as hegemonic Irish masculinity (more colloquially referred to as ‘cute hoorism’) was also central to two politically-themed docudramas during the year: Charlie and The Guarantee. Taken together, these bookended a fascinating and eventful thirty year period of the Fianna Fail political party stretching from the rise and fall of Charlie Haughey during the long, lingering recession of the mid 1980s to the infamous ‘bank guarantee’ in September 2008 that ultimately led to bankruptcy and surrender of economic sovereignty to the ‘troika’ in 2010. The connivances and rivalries of the Irish male economic and political elite are central to both projects which share a structuring interest in how key moments in recent Irish history were forged in the dialectic between national and international factors. In the first, Charlie Haughey – despite his considerable ethical short-fallings – is represented as distinguishing himself from the ‘gombeen’ men of parochial politics through a confident and glamorous Europeanism (modeled on French arrogance) and an abiding ambition to see Dublin host the skyscrapers of international commerce (realized in the Irish Financial Services Centre). Conversely, the cosmopolitan Irish businessmen of The Guarantee are portrayed as dazzled by the same metaphorical skyscrapers of greed to the extent that the nation has become reduced to a geographical backdrop until such time as the casino of global capital withholds any more credit. Both dramas seek to explain Irish history through narrative structures familiar from British and American TV: particularly the dialogue driven political drama of Aaron Sorkin, the British political docudramas of Peter Morgan and the Machiavellian power struggles of US cable shows such as House of Cards. Both projects succeed and fail in different ways, but linking them is a reluctance to fully acknowledge and locate the specific conditions and contradictions of Irish life; notably ties of kinship and community. The Guarantee is all sheen and surface, set in a world of computer screens and ‘rolling’ news bulletins while Charlie, although assiduously faithful to the ebbs and flows of domestic politics, (indeed overwhelmingly so, to the detriment of drama) entirely ignores Haughey’s home (but not private) life. While it does include several scenes with Haughey’s mother it renders his wife and children invisible suggesting a coyness about the traditional Irish family within an otherwise generic drama about a complex and powerful men. In both projects therefore it is not the ‘universal’ but the local that fails to fully convince.
Frank – more fully explored and analysed by Harvey O’Brien below is, alongside Calvary, arguably the most significant Irish feature film of the year even if its status as ‘Irish’ is even more contested. Produced by the prolific Element films from a script by English journalist Jon Ronson and starring an international cast, its presence within this review rests on its production company (Element),significant IFB development/production funding, the directorial presence of Lenny Abrahamson and ‘Irish’ stars Michael Fassbender (Irish-German playing American) and Domhnall Gleeson (with an English accent).In fact, only a very small portion of the film is set in Ireland where its cast of misfit musicians (French, British, American) led by the eponymous Frank attempt to record an album before travelling to perform at the hallowed SXSW festival in Austin, Texas. The film is an outlier in many respects (its oddball, uncategorizable status perhaps reflected in modest box-office takings) but it can ultimately be seen – in different ways – as of a piece with both Abrahamson and Gleeson’s respective bodies of work. Gleeson is a unique screen presence; slightly androgynous, courageous, never afraid to look foolish. His characters – often Irish but never in any typed sense – are rarely bound by circumstances or their past but seem open to chance and change. For Abrahamson this is another deeply humanist exploration of outsider male characters. While in films such as Adam and Paul or Garage these were located within recognizable Irish settings and socio-spatial contexts, Frank is a character who embodies ‘masquerade’ theories of social construction and gender to a highly self conscious/post-modern extreme, only to be ‘exposed’ (like many of Abrahamson’s protagonists) near the film’s conclusion. In a fascinating, transnational denouement, Abrahamson’s film suggests that such masquerade is neither dissembling nor dishonest; on the contrary it can facilitate the articulation of a more truthful inner voice. Contravening the narrative cliché linking self-transcendence and success, Frank suggests that we are most truthful in performance. For all his oddness, unlike Adam/Paul, Josie or Richard, Frank is ultimately ‘saved’ by returning to his band who remain outside of dominant social structures. Questioning the contemporary link between social media and social relations the film offers a stirring and ultimately touching exploration of community in a post-national, networked society.
Returning to an institutional frame, it is notable within this thematic tension between the national and international, that an increasing number of Irish films appear to be securing prestigious industry/festival screenings and distribution within and beyond Ireland. Notable in the first category was Terry MacMahon’s Patrick’s Day (reviewed by Barry Monahan below) which earned the Screen Directors Guild ‘Finders Series’ Award ensuring it was screened in the prestigious DGA Theatre in Los Angeles to key US film distributors in October 2014.4
In January 2015 no less than five Irish-supported titles – Glassland, Strangerland, The Hallow, Brooklyn and The Visit – secured screenings at Sundance, a festival regarded as a key launching pad for international arthouse films. Along with Abrahamson’s maiden US release Frank, a number of lower-key titles secured US distribution on a variety of formats: Life’s a Breeze, starring Fionnula Flanagan and Pat Shortt opened in US cinemas in September 2014 before moving to VOD. Cartoon Saloon’s Song of the Sea (which won’t be released in Ireland until summer 2015) received a limited US theatrical release; Ivan Kavanagh’s horror feature The Canal and Des Doyle’s warmly-received documentary Showrunners screened at Tribeca and Donal Foreman’s impressive micro-budget debut Out of Here (discussed in these pages last year) had a small Irish release before moving to Vimeo VOD.
VOD is in fact slowly but radically altering the distribution landscape of Irish cinema. In 2014 UK arthouse cinema group Curzon, added a plethora of examples of what might be termed Irish repertory cinema (including Eden (2008), Waveriders (2008), Parked (2010), Snap (2010) and Barbaric Genius (2011)) to their online offering Curzon Home Cinema. Netflix Ireland’s decision to add The Stag, Calvary and Frank to their list of titles was interpreted as a serious vote of confidence in the audience pulling power of those films. Netflix went further in February 2015, acquiring global rights to Jadotville, a feature based on the 1961 siege of an Irish battalion on UN duty in the Belgian Congo and featuring Jamie Dornan (The Fall/50 Shades), a move which suggested that the company could no longer afford to take their Irish subscribers for granted and had identified domestic content as a key development strategy.
We can say that 2014 saw a resurgent confidence and optimism within the Irish film and TV sector; expressed in producer James Flynn of Octagon Films comment that “We are in a golden age of sorts . . . hopefully things will get even better.” The figures seem to support this view: the overall value of independent (i.e. non-broadcaster) film, television and animation production in Ireland reached €195m in 2014, up 6.5% in 2013 (and a whopping 37% in 2012) (IFB 2015). The Irish Film Board were clearly looking to build on this: by January 2015 they were engaged in a consultation with the indigenous industry to inform a new Five Year strategy. Notably, the language used by Bill O’Herlihy and James Hickey at the announcement of the Board’s schedule for the coming year explicitly identified IFB as a screen industries development agency (as opposed to one narrowly focused on promoting film culture), with a particular emphasis on the need to develop the level of TV drama with international sales prospects.
The optimism about an upturn in activity was evinced in a number of other ways. Several Irish directors who have been quiet of late (at least within Ireland) began work on indigenous projects as Jim Sheridan, Paddy Breathnach, John Carney and John Crowley commenced shooting on The Secret Scripture, Viva, Sing Street and Brooklyn respectively. In November 2014, the star of the animation sector, Brown Bag Films announced the establishment of a subsidiary in Manchester employing 40 people. New county-level Film Commissions continue to spring up around the country. In June 2014, 24-7 Camera, a major supplier of camera equipment to UK television producers (including the Sky produced Moone Boy) opened a Dublin branch directly providing to the Irish market. Most telling, however, were repeated expressions of concern that Ireland lacked sufficient studio space; even after the Titanic Studios facility in Belfast which has hosted every season of Game of Thrones secured permission in August 2014 to add 100,000 square foot (equivalent in size to southern studios Ardmore and Ballyhenry combined) to its facility.5
There was also encouraging news for the smaller screen. After years of retrenchment and cost-cutting, RTÉ earned its first profits (€1.1m) since 2007. UTV Ireland’s securing of public service status from the BAI in December 2014 guaranteed it a favourable slot on Saorview platform and cable/satellite EPGs, forcing TV3 to significantly up their indigenous output. Although this is largely constituted by reality/lifestyle genres, (often based on well-established UK formats such as Blind Date and Gogglebox), it also prompted a significant commitment (€7m for 80 episodes over two years) to the channel’s new domestically-produced soap Red Rock. The early months of the show has surpassed expectations, winning 411,000 viewers on its debut. By contrast, UTV Ireland, which has relied heavily on its flagship evening news programme to distinguish it from not just RTE and TV3 but also its former incarnation has initially struggled to win market share. Watch this space.
Our focus on the last 12 months notwithstanding, casting an eye over the past two decades from the vantage point of 2015 reveals patterns. There is now a broad sense that there is a generation of Irish people who have grown up with the assumption that there is a sustained and secure culture/industry of Irish screen production and an acceptance that today this culture/industry is structured in tension between the local and ‘universal’. This is reflected at one level in the remarkable emergence onto an international stage of a plethora of Irish actors who are as likely to be seen in ‘Irish’ stories as films/TV shows which are part of global media culture: Saoirse Ronan, Andrew Scott, Jack Reynor, Jamie Dornan, Michael Fassbender, Aiden Gillen, Chris O’Dowd and Domhnall Gleeson (among others). Increasingly this is also the case behind the camera too: Aisling Walsh, Dearbhla Walsh and Neasa Hardiman are all established directors on UK TV who work when possible in Ireland. Productions like the Australia-set Strangerland and Sky’s Fortitude feature a number of Irish HoDs. Andrea Arnold uses IADT graduate Robbie Ryan as her go-to Director of Photography whilst two of the biggest global movies of 2014/15, Godzilla and Fifty Shades of Grey were both lensed by Antrim man Seamus McGarvey. Perhaps the most spectacular leap in this regard this year was that of Ciaran Foy, who moved from directing the low-budget Irish horror Citadel in 2012 to the Ethan Hawke hit horror Sinister sequel. It is notable too that Ireland is increasingly a site for post-production work on both local and international productions: Roy and Moone Boy were both posted by Egg Post Production as were Miss Julie and Young Ones at Windmill Lane.
Cumulatively, the increasingly established position of this talent and these companies (amongst countless others) suggests a diversified and broad-based industry which has finally ‘bedded in’ after years of turbulence and uncertainty. The challenge for content makers in film and TV is to convincingly balance this tension between the local and universal in ways that neither disown the experience and specificity of Irish culture and nor take for granted the long journey towards the established, vibrant and hugely talented Irish moving image sector we see today.
- The comments were subsequently widely reported and commented upon. On radio, for example: ‘Leading Irish producer speaks to Newstalk about John Michael McDonagh’ criticism of Irish film’, http://www.newstalk.com/Irish-producer-speaks-to-Newstalk-about-John-Michael-McDonaghs-criticism-of-Irish-film [↩]
- Reprinted in several outlets including: Screenwriter blog, Irish Times. [↩]
- Both films adopting a similar release strategy (a single cinema release expanding to 75 screens after four weeks following initially healthy per screen averages) that did not translate into even arthouse-scale “mass” appeal. [↩]
- Patrick’s Day’ Wins Screen Directors Guild ‘Finders Series’ Award http://filmireland.net/2014/08/25/patricks-day-wins-screen-directors-guild-finders-series-award/ [↩]
- This focus on studio space seems remarkable: only three years ago this editorial started by raising questions over the future viability of Ardmore Studios after the opening of the competing Ballyhenry Facility. Yet in June 2014, the Film Board issued a call for expression of interest in promoting audiovisual studios. In November 2014, Siun Ni Raghallaigh, Chief Executive of Ardmore went so far as to suggest that there was a need to double (i.e. increase by 100,000 square feet) the availability of studio space (plus a further 150,000 of support buildings) in Ireland. In the same month the Film Limerick screen commission, in the context of promoting Limerick as an alternate hub of screen production raised the prospect of creating a studio to be located inside the 300,000sq ft former Dell factory – a symbolic repurposing and statement about how the screen industries in Ireland have thrived throughout an economic crisis which has seen off notionally more stable manufacturing industry. [↩]
Casetti, Francesco. 2012. “The Relocation of Cinema”, European Journal of Media Studies, Nov 22 http://www.necsus-ejms.org/the-relocation-of-cinema/
Clarke, Donald. 2014. “Are you sending back your IFTA, John Michael McDonagh?” Screenwriter blog, The Irish Times, Sep 15 http://www.irishtimes.com/blogs/screenwriter/2014/09/15/john-michael-mcdonagh-denies-calvary-is-an-irish-film/
Digital Spy. 2011. “John McDonagh talks The Guard”. Video, Uploaded August 19, viewed February 27 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eTeXO3ojpko.
Hickey, James. 2014. “James Hickey Welcomes Recent Debate on Irish Film and Speaks about his Optimism for the future of the Industry”, Sep 22 http://www.irishfilmboard.ie/irish_film_industry/news/James_Hickey_Welcomes_Recent_Debate_on_Irish_Film
Irish Film Board. 2015. “Irish Film 2015, In the Spotlight”, Dublin: Irish Film Board, January. http://www.irishfilmboard.ie/files/reports/IFB_Catalogue_2015_Digital.pdf
Every Plot has a Story. One Million Dubliners (Aoife Kelleher 2014)
Frank (Lenny Abrahamson 2014)
Calvary (John Michael McDonagh 2014)
‘It’s a man in a f***ing dress’ – Why 11 million people cannot get enough of Mrs Brown’s Boys
The Irreducible Difference of the Other (Vivienne Dick 2013)
An Bronntanas [The Gift] (Tom Collins 2014)
Out of Here and What Richard Did: Listlessness & Inarticulacy in the Young Irish Population
A Poetics of Mental Illness: Patrick’s Day (Terry McMahon 2014)
Irish film finance rebooted: the new Section 481