NUI Galway, Ireland | School of Communications, Dublin City University, Ireland | Published: 15 March, 2016
ISSUE 11 | Pages: 275-320 | PDF | DOAJ | https://doi.org/10.24162/EI2016-6302
2016 by Tony Tracy | Roddy Flynn | 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.
The Irish Are Coming: Irish Film and Television in 2015
Stephen Colbert: “How did I do with your name? ‘Sursha’.”
Saoirse Ronan: “’Sursha” is perfect. ‘Sursha’ like inertia.
SC: “What’s the worst pronunciation of your name that you’ve ever had?”
SR: “I’ve had a lot of ‘Sore-sees’, ‘Suarez’, ‘Sair-she’, ‘Sheer-says’…
SC: “You do look a little bit like a Suarez.”
The Late Show 12 January 2016
Recent months have seen the “absurd” discrepancy between the spelling and pronunciation of Saoirse Ronan’s first name repeatedly exploited for comic effect on the American chat show circuit. Before Colbert, Ellen de Generes did it twice (producing cards with Irish names and challenging the audience to guess the correct pronunciation) while Jimmy Fallon couldn’t avoid referring to the Ronan’s brogue during a Tonight Show appearance in November 2015. Behind the cheap laughs, however, these exchange simply that US audiences need to get used to Irish accents and idioms (Interview magazine featured a similar encounter between Domhnall Gleeson and Angelina Jolie), pointing to a ‘mainstreaming’ of young Irish actors and – perhaps – Irish film within the US entertainment firmament.1
This ‘greening’ owes much to the critical success and extensive coverage afforded two recent Irish films – the screen adaptations of Brooklyn and, to a lesser extent, Room (reviewed in this year’s edition by Pat Brereton and Eileen Culloty respectively) – although for a variety of reasons, Saoirse has proven the more marketable personality. In the case of Brooklyn, the remarkable success of Colm Tóibín’s novel was replicated by John Crowley’s screen version. After premiering at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2015, a carefully planned festival release strategy built critical momentum over nine months, paying dividends on the US and UK awards circuits, most notably for Saoirse Ronan’s central performance as Eilis.
The comparable success of Lenny Abrahamson’s Room (the nomination of Abrahamson in Best Director category in some senses outshone Brooklyn’s considerable achievements) came as a late bonus given that the film didn’t receive a world premiere (notably at Telluride, not Dublin) until September 2015. Both films featured prominently among the nominees for the Screen Actors Guild, the Golden Globes, the New Film Critics Awards and, of course the Academy Awards. When Colin Welland, on receiving the Best Screenplay Oscar for Chariots of Fire in 1982, famously proclaimed that “the British are Coming”, he could only point to that single film. In 2016, the Oscar nominations created a hitherto unimaginable scenario: two Irish films vying not only in the Best Actress Category but also for the high status and financially critical Best Picture Oscar. The Irish, it would seem, have arrived.
So overwhelming has the critical praise and coverage of these films been that they have all but eclipsed other films produced in Ireland over the past year and become, inevitably perhaps, the benchmarks by which such films are measured. Notwithstanding their extraordinary achievements, Brooklyn and Room nevertheless raise provocative issues around the definition and ambitions of Irish cinema in 2016. (Along with the not-yet unreleased Viva – a Cuba-set Spanish language film shortlisted as Ireland’s entry in the Best Foreign Language category). While Room can unproblematically be identified as Irish at a production level, led by director Lenny Abrahamson and producer Ed Guiney (and substantial development and production funding from the Irish Film Board),the setting and characters are unequivocally North American. Outside Ireland, some media coverage has referred to the film as Canadian, reflecting Guiney’s creative exploitation of screenwriter Emma Donoghue’s dual Irish/Canadian citizenship to access Canadian funding. (The film is adapted from Donoghue’s novel). In this regard it’s worth recalling that the previous Abrahamson/Guiney collaboration, Frank (2014) had scarcely any textual relationship to Ireland at all (bar a brief stop-over for the band) and while two of its principle actors were Irish – Michael Fassbinder and Domhnall Gleeson – they were cast as American and British characters respectively.
Brooklyn, of course, is an overtly Irish text. Based on Irish writer Colm Tóibín’s novel, it stars the most prominent Irish screen actress since Maureen O’Hara in a familiar story of Irish emigration to the United States. Director John Crowley was previously best known for Intermission (2003) and the Irish Film Board, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland and – in a rare move – RTE contributed towards the production budget. But, as the producers acknowledged in an interview with Screen International, the rest of the budget was a patchwork of international finance: the UK (the BFI, the BBC, Lionsgate UK and the UK tax credit), Canada (Telefilm Canada and distributor Mongrel Media) and Australasia (Transmission Films), with some gap financing on top. Although Irish production company Parallel facilitated the Irish shoot and secured the Irish funding, they were clearly the junior partner in a production led by London-based Wildgaze Films. Tellingly – but somewhat awkwardly for any “Irish are coming” narrative – the film qualified for the Best British Film category at the January 2016 BAFTAs, which it then won.
The point of all this is not to nitpick, or to undermine the efforts of the Irish Film Board, production companies and creative talent, which have unquestionably made decisive contributions to these productions. It is rather to raise the question of whether it even makes sense to think of Irish cinema in national terms anymore. And if not, then how might we conceptualise and relate the diversity of activities in Ireland’s audio visual sector.
Admittedly this is scarcely an original observation, nor is it one that uniquely applies to Ireland: for at least two decades, the idea that national cinemas can be treated as discrete entities has been increasingly difficult for the film academics to sustain. From the early 1990s, when scholars like Stephen Crofts and Andrew Higson sought to delineate the range of approaches which might be included under the rubric of national cinema, they had to include some categories which, on the fact of it, seemed to have very little to do with the notion of the national. Croft’s “Imitating Hollywood” category (into which he placed much Anglophone production from the UK, Australia and Canada) noted the extent to which such nations had become offshore production bases for Hollywood. While this has some bearing on Ireland – more in relation to high-end television than film these days, it does not quite capture the complexities of the situation.
For some years, this annual Review has traced an evolving trajectory whereby Irish screen policy has, in line with the wider industrial policies of Ireland’s open economy, sought to ‘balance’ what might be described as cultural priorities with a desire to maximize the potential for foreign investment – through tax breaks, co-productions, location facilities or other means. Behind the celebration of ‘Irish’ film, such policies continued to be developed this year by Minister for Finance Michael Noonan’s October 2015 decision to raise the cap on eligible expenditure using the Section 481 tax credit to €70m, a figure simply not relevant to Irish indigenous production. Similarly, in November 2015 a subsidiary of Ardmore, Troy Studios signed long term deal with Limerick City and County Council to lease the former Dell Factory in Castletroy (a company once attracted to Ireland for tax purposes but who have since relocated to cheaper Poland), promising to add 70,000 square feet to the existing 110,000 sq. foot of studio space already in Ireland, clearly with a view to luring international film and TV productions.
Such policies have borne fruit for Ardmore who are clearly keen to extend their successful business model: in March 2015 the History Channel renewed Vikings for a fourth season whilst the third season of Showtime’s Penny Dreadful began shooting at Ardmore in September. Having been revived by Amazon Prime for a third series, Ripper Street secured a further two season renewal from the online retailer (and a Royal Television Society award to postproduction house Screen scene for their work on the series). Additionally, of course, in September 2015, the Star Wars franchise returned to the Skelligs to begin principal photography on Episode VIII.
The scale of studio expansion suggests an expectation that Ireland will share in anticipated future global production growth. This is a highly contested market – even within the boundaries of this small island. Similar strategies north of the border are paying serious dividends, perhaps to the detriment of inward production levels in the Republic. The Northern Ireland Screen/Invest NI-backed Game of Thrones (now in it sixth season on HBO) continued to shoot at Titanic Studios and carry out some of it post-production activity in Belfast. Endemol’s large budget series The Frankenstein Chronicles completed an NI shoot in 2015 and there were renewals for two major BBC police procedurals shot there, Line of Duty and The Fall. Even the Brad Pitt-produced Lost City of Z feature spent five weeks in Belfast.
Regardless, the bifurcatory manner in which the Review has traditionally characterized the Irish screen industries – a financially dominant overseas production sector on the one hand and (much) smaller scale indigenous production on the other – no longer captures the complexities of the sector. It may now be worth considering a third, overlapping category that encompasses content, production and distribution contexts: a transnational Irish ‘cinema’.
In her survey of how the concept of transnational cinema has been deconstructed and reconstructed Deborah Shaw, identifies fifteen possible modes. Key amongst these are transnational practices of production, distribution and exhibition, such as co-production funding and marketing films to global audiences.2 This is suggestive for Room, a transnational film at the level of funding but where the primary imagined audience is unlikely to ever have been only Irish. Since Room, Abrahamson has been linked with a plethora of subsequent projects which – like his past two projects – are textually unconnected to Ireland. These include the story of the gay New York boxer Emile Griffith, a possible adaptation of Laird Hunt’s novel Neverhome (about a woman who disguises herself as a man to fight in the America Civil War) and an adaptation of Sarah Water’s supernatural post-World War Two novel The Little Stranger. If, as Eileen Culotty suggests in her review of Room, the film is in part a “calling card” to Hollywood, then clearly it has been heard. Less interested in the socio-political complexities of the local than Abrahamson’s first three films, and set in a non-specified, ‘vanilla’ North America, Room is a transnational art house film (or Hiberno-Anglo-American at any rate), that eschews the social for the personal, even as it makes strong use of Irish production talent and finance.
It is not unique. Paddy Breathnach’s new film Viva, just missed out on making the shortlist for Best Foreign Language Film for the 2016 Oscars. However, the language in question was not Irish but rather Spanish, since the Mark O’Halloran–penned script was entirely filmed in Cuba and shot through Spanish. For his part, having made two examples of resolutely national films in Pilgrim Hill and Glassland, Gerard Barrett’s next feature is Brain on Fire, a Ireland-US-Canada production filmed in Canada with Chloe Grace Moretz (Kickass) in the lead role. Finally Juanita Wilson (As if I was Not There) has just completed shooting Tomato Red, an Irish-Canadian co-production set in the Missouri Ozarks, starring a largely American cast but with key Irish talent in the roles of cinematographer Piers McGrail (Out of Here), and composer Stephen Rennick (What Richard Did, Frank, Room).
Stephen Crofts has also made reference to the risk that Anglophone cinemas may fall prey to Hollywood vampirism, i.e. talent poaching. In this regard the recent ascent of younger Irish actors in the Hollywood firmament has been remarkable – to the established names of Neeson, Brosnan, Byrne, Farrell and (Brendan) Gleeson, the last half decade has seen Saoirse Ronan, Fassbender (nominated this year for a Best Actor Oscar for his performance in Steve Jobs
- “So, Brad had a question for you. What the hell is the M doing in your name if you’re not going to use it?”Angelina Jolie to Domhnall Gleeson, Interview Magazine, 6 April 2015. [↩]
- Deborah Shaw, “Deconstructing and reconstructing ‘transnational cinema’”, in: Stephanie Dennison, ed. Contemporary Hispanic Cinema: Interrogating the Transnational in Spanish and Latin American Film (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell & Brewer, 2013). [↩]
The Canal (Ivan Kavanagh 2014)
Brooklyn (John Crowley 2015)
Song of the Sea (Tomm Moore 2014)
An Klondike (Dathaí Keane 2015)
Room (Lenny Abrahamson 2015)
Queen of Ireland (Conor Horgan 2015)
The Legend of Longwood (Lisa Mulcahy 2014)
My Bonnie (Hannah Quinn 2015)
Glassland (Gerard Barret 2015)
The Great Wall (Tadhg O’Sullivan 2015)
Rebellion (Colin Teevan / RTE 2016)
I Used to Live Here (Frank Berry 2015)