Université de Bretagne Occidentale, France
An Bronntanas [The Gift] (Tom Collins 2014)
Tom Collins has been an active force in Irish film-making for decades, having been involved in founding the Derry Film and Video Collective in 1984, and working as camera operator on the controversial documentary Mother Ireland (Harkin 1986) . He has produced or directed many well-received documentaries, and in 2007 directed the bilingual feature about a group of Conamara immigrants to London, Kings (2007) which like An Bronntanas, was nominated as the Irish entry for ‘Best Foreign Language Film’ at the Academy Awards.1 This is an impressive record: given the challenges in making feature-length drama in Irish, it is unsurprising that only a handful of original features in the Irish language exist.2
Written by Collins, Joe Byrne, Paul Walker and Eoin McNamee, the story tells of the personal, familial and community fallout that ensues when the main character, reformed alcoholic and recently returned emigrant JJ Magill (Dara Devaney/ Darach Ó Dubháin), chooses the darker side. The story’s central themes include filial loyalty, where the doughty Carmel (Charlotte Bradley) impels her younger son to take over his late father’s struggling business despite his brighter prospects across the Atlantic, and romantic love, where the feisty Róisín (Michelle Beamish) chooses the better of the two brothers and manages to keep a blind eye turned to their increasingly frantic cover-ups. Community is personified in the factory workers, who rely on one entrepreneur to keep their town working, and the Irish-American Garda Seán Óg (John Finn), whose courteous manner belies distress at his detective son (Owen McDonnell) Fiachra’s cruelty. First broadcast as a five-part television series in October-November 2014, An Bronntanas was very successful with its core audience, (a survey by the audience panel Fios Físe showed 60% to be ‘very satisfied’ with the series) and the wider Irish public (TAM ratings for the first four episodes reached 340,000), making the thriller one of the most popular indigenous dramas so far on TG4. Similarly, the feature film ‘cut’ attracted a capacity crowd at the Galway Fleadh in July 2014 (Butler 2014).
This was not the first time that ROSG, a small Conamara independent production company co-founded by Ciarán Ó Cofaigh and Robert Quinn, sought to express a noir vision in its drama. Since the beginning of the short film schemes organised by TG4 and the Irish Film Board/ FilmBase, ROSG’s presence has been consistent, with Cosa Nite [Clean Getaway] (1998) and An Leabhar [The Book] (2000), both nominated as ‘best short’ at the 1999 and 2002 IFTAs respectively (Lysaght, 2004).3 Their 2010 series/feature adaptation Na Cloigne [The Heads], ventures into supernatural territory.4 Although ROSG is also involved in documentary and animation, the dark aesthetic of their fictional offerings continued into longer productions such as the ambitious feature Cré na Cille (2007), a visually rich adaptation of Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s eponymous modernist novel.
An Bronntanas was originally designed as a six-part television series, but due to funding difficulties, the decision was made to reduce this to five-parts with a companion feature film version also produced for festival screening (Ó Cofaigh 2014). In the vein of Celtic noir, whose atmosphere is influenced in equal part by recent Nordic noir TV drama and by the darker side of Irish rural society, An Bronntanas engages with big moral dilemmas faced by ordinary people. The storyline follows the twists and turns that ensue when a volunteer lifeboat crew decides to cover up an unexpected drugs find – and a murder – for their own gain. Dealing with characters on and beyond the margins (fish factory employees in danger of being downsized, Polish visitors, alcoholics and returned emigrants – not to mention Irish-speakers), the drama overturns older screen images of the romantic west. Filmed all over Conamara, An Bronntanas was four years in the planning, with action, gun, explosions and night-time boat rescue storm scenes,5) making it a very ambitious project for the time and finances allowed.
There is an air of mystery throughout the early sequences, as we cannot identify certain key figures (e.g. the murderer of Anna Terescova (Eimear O’Grady)) and we do not have reliable access to the motivations or interests of several characters. JJ is similarly enigmatic, showing little of his almost certain emotional struggle as he returns from Canada for his father’s funeral, learns of his mother’s plans and that his brother Macdara (Pól Ó Gríofa) has descended further into alcoholism. JJ veers between physical and emotional absence and presence, as he gradually finds a place to stand. He appears to be holding himself together, rarely allowing anxiety to surface. During the dramatic sea rescue attempt, JJ ends up overboard, physically immersed in the Atlantic, between two worlds. His eventual decision to keep quiet about the crew’s discovery seems to be due as much to a strong wish to come ‘home’ and to re-belong as to any question of greed.
As in Kings, we see the story of the emigrant/immigrant, from inside and without, as Irish, American and Polish characters deal with financial struggles, moral responsibility and the negation or recovery of links to their family and home community. There are many strong resonances with contemporary Irish life, such as the worry of the single mother (Siobhán O’Kelly) losing her job as the factory downsizes, interactions between Polish and Irish workers, drink being the response to social and geographic isolation and the complex relationship between the forces of law and order with the rural community (as examined recently the documentary The Pipe (Ó Domhnaill 2010)).
Whilst the sweeping landscapes of the west play host to car and bike chases, rocky islands contain fatal caves and the strong waves of the sea alternately conceal and reveal what is a double-edged ‘gift’ (An Bronntanas being the name of the boat containing the corpse and drugs), our attention is primarily focused on the characters’ faces. Director of Photography Cian De Buitléir makes the most of his opportunities for broadening the setting, with poetic use of light and contrasting interior and exterior spaces – but the project ultimately remains more televisual than cinematic.
The story unfolds in a small Connacht town, with forays into Jakub’s caravan, Carmel’s kitchen and the bedroom of the B&B where Anna was staying. The pub (in a neighbouring town) serves as a setting for an attempted drug sale and backroom torture, featuring one of the least developed characters in the person of an English dwarf drug-dealer. The fish factory, with its blues and whites, is the perfect foil for the darker colours of guilt and blood in the night, as JJ and Jakub attempt to dispose of another body.
As Ireland is situated between two important anglophone centres of high quality audio-visual production, the visibility (or audibility) of local fiction in Irish cannot be taken for granted. To attract audiences, An Bronntanas plays a double game, deploying generic conventions from international crime drama in a local setting with a mixture of Irish and international characters and actors and using a language which implies regional authenticity. The drama walks a tightrope between genres, cultures and languages, which makes the production all the more interesting:
“we have achieved something in Irish that has never been done before on such a scale” (Ó Cofaigh 2014).
The primary criterion for judging An Bronntanas has to be its visual and narrative force, as opposed to its language. However, as the Irish language is strongly present, and is not yet ‘transparent’ for most audience groups, it is useful to consider its effect as an additional layer of interpretation. In other words, the use of Irish (and Polish) in an environment where English is the dominant language creates a sort of imaginary opacity for many viewers, which may contribute to the creation of a certain atmosphere. Consider the air of exoticism enjoyed by recent subtitled ‘noir’ or detective series from Scandinavia, which have been very popular with Irish audiences. As Ó Cofaigh points out, series such as The Bridge or The Killing (broadcast on TG4) have made people more open to subtitles in fiction (Ó Cofaigh 2014).6 However, some critics still find the use of Irish in the context of a crime thriller difficult to accept (Kearns 2014).
We are currently at a threshold stage in the criticism of Irish-language productions – gradually moving away from reflex reactions to early TG4 work, whose high standard pleasantly surprised English-speaking critics in “an rud is annamh is iontach” [what’s rare is prized] mode. Instead of praising an Irish-language drama for its very existence (which unfortunately remains common), we are now entering a phase where the volume of previous productions is starting to provide enough of a critical backdrop by which to measure new work. Of course, it is too early yet not to take into account the presence and influence of the language on contemporary productions.
For ROSG, Irish is an integral part of the work from conception to production and is used normally as a means of communication. Their vision is to develop production and the language:
[no matter the genre] when it is done as Gaeilge it is always breaking new ground. I believe, whether I’m right or wrong, that we can make a positive difference on behalf of the Irish language. There is always an added dimension in proving that strong, relevant TV and Film can be produced as Gaeilge (Ó Cofaigh 2014).
This approach is very different to that taken by non-Irish-speaking production houses, where the language is used in a more self-conscious manner.7 In ROSG productions, Irish is “a natural part of the landscape and culture” (Crosson 2011). In an interview with Seán Tadhg Ó Gairbhí for the news website Tuairisc, Ó Cofaigh underlines this idea:
níl aon phointe ann go bhfuil Gaeilge á labhairt ag na carachtair, just tarlaíonn sé go bhfuil” [There’s no particular reason that the characters speak Irish – they just happen to speak it](Ó Cofaigh dans “Agallamh faoi An Bronntanas” 2014).
Although the language can be said to be less ‘visible’ for an audience of fluent speakers in terms of narrative, it is hugely important in terms of production process.
Much has been made of the appearance in An Bronntanas of the American actor John Finn, known to audiences mainly for his role as Lt. John Stillman in the TV series Cold Case (he also featured in a TG4 joint promo for Ros na Rún and Cold Case in 2005). Finn’s presence certainly helped with the profile of the drama, and it is important to note that his participation in the project was largely due to good will: “I did it for next to nothing but I would have done it for nothing!… It was a wonderful thing for me”(Finn 2014b). Finn, who has been learning Irish for some years, remarks positively on the atmosphere on set: “I think the best part was being able to work with a crew who used the language in a practical sense” (Finn 2014b). Such gestures have been a feature of Irish-language film production for several decades. It is encouraging to see the support that actors and crew have for the language, but it is dangerous to assume that the industry can grow and develop if professionals are not paid properly for their craft.
Although Finn is the most prominent ‘star’ in An Bronntanas, Janusz Sheagall in the more demanding role of Jakub, is stronger in terms of screen domination. His performance is subtle and finely balanced, garnering positive reviews from Film Ireland (Butler 2014) and Film Flixx (Kearns 2014). Some of the other characters’ roles are less than fleshed out – we can see that a sixth episode may have helped to fill in some of the missing pieces. Less background and motivation is provided for the female characters in general, and the baddies tread an uneasy line between viciousness and just not funny enough.
There are several successful scenes where tension is conveyed by masterly photography, editing, music and performance: clear examples are the attack on Anna in the boat and her struggle to communicate her situation by phone, and the storm rescue of JJ. Another interesting moment which plays with linguistic and cultural difference to excellent narrative effect is the scene where Jakub’s Polish superior is mistranslated in virtuoso low-key style at the coffin of his colleague, and the kindly Seán Óg takes it all at face value.
Violence is treated alternately in realistic and comic mode, and the latter does not always work. There are genuinely unpleasant scenes, such as the torture of Macdara by Fiachra in a confined setting, but also some ridiculous ones, where the English dwarf and his local sidekick seek revenge with a hurley. Another scene which stretches credulity (not to mention gore-viewing capacity) is one where car keys are being sought in a vat of human and fish entrails – surely somebody could have hotwired the jeep!
It is important to note the ambition and reach of the drama, evident in the many successful sequences, but also in a few ‘nearly there’ scenes, which demonstrate the potential for future fiction productions from this team. An example of a scene which almost achieves its goal is the father and son stand-off/ sacrifice in the cave towards the close of the story. The pace is just a little too fast to properly honour the electricity and self-realisation of the moment, and it is a pity to gloss over what could have been much more powerful.8
An Bronntanas is an ambitiously realised and often genuinely tense tale of how people have to live with the consequences of their decisions, first in their immediate circle and beyond into society. The interplay of Irish, English and Polish adds another layer to the challenge of figuring out who to trust. A majority of strong performances, credible special effects and sensitive musical choices make this a drama worth watching.
- Kings was very successful in terms of awards, winning the Gold Torc at the 2008 Celtic Film and Media Awards; a Special Commendation at Prix Europa Best Drama 2008; Best Cinematography Award at the Hamptons Film Festival 2008; Best Film at the Westchester Film Festival 2008 and a Special Commendation Foyle Film Festival 2008. Collins also won the Director’s Guild of America / Ireland New Finders Award in 2007. [↩]
- Later in 2015, the feature animation Song of the Sea (Moore 2014) is due to be released in an Irish and an English version (Clarke 2015). [↩]
- Cosa Nite tells of foul play in the bog, adultery and three attempts at murder, and An Leabhar follows a student who is offered a new career by a band of professional assassins. Quinn won the prize for best first film (An Leabhar) at the Celtic Media Festival, 2001. [↩]
- Na Cloigne won ‘Best original music’ IFTAs 2011, ‘best drama series’ at the Celtic Media Festival (2011), ‘TV drama of the year’ at an tOireachtas 2011 (an tOireachtas 2012). Darach Ó Dubháin (Dara Devaney) also won ‘best actor’ at the Oireachtas. [↩]
- “We spent a good year and a half trying to figure out how to do those scenes so we had it very well figured out between ourselves, the DOP Cian de Buitléar and the FX team from Team FX. But of course the days we were shooting the storm scenes the weather was lovely and calm so we had a lot of work to create a storm!” (Ó Cofaigh 2014 [↩]
- According to critic Pat Stacey, the use of Irish in An Bronntanas only adds to its market potential: “it has everything the BBC4 audience could want: murder, mystery, betrayal, corruption, guns, drugs, double-crosses, plenty of exotic (for UK viewers) local flavour and, of course, subtitles” (Stacey 2014). [↩]
- In other words, Irish is used by people who would not usually speak it, which makes it appear more salient or ‘forced’. [↩]
- Of course, some such gaps are due to the constraints of the format, rather than conscious artistic choices: “we shot the series with the structure of the film in mind and even though there is obviously less in the film than the series, a lot less time and by default less depth to it, it still works really well as a stand-alone piece” (Ó Cofaigh 2014). [↩]
Agallamh faoi An Bronntanas. 2014. October 22. Retrieved from http://tuairisc.ie/fisean-agallamh-faoi-an-bronntanas/
Butler, C. 2014. July 15. “An Bronntanas – Review of Irish Film at the Galway Film Fleadh | Film Ireland”. Film Ireland. Retrieved from http://filmireland.net/2014/07/15/an-bronntanas-review-of-irish-film-at-the-galway-film-fleadh/
Celtic Media Festival. 2011. “Past winners 2008 – present – Celtic Media Festival”. Retrieved December 15, 2014, from http://www.celticmediafestival.co.uk/past-winners/2
Clarke, D. 2015. January 15. “Oscars 2015: Tomm Moore’s Song of the Sea gets nod”. The Irish Times. Retrieved from http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/film/oscars-2015-tomm-moore-s-song-of-the-sea-gets-nod-1.2067091
Crosson, Séan. 2011. “Na Cloigne (2010) ”. Estudios Irlandeses 6: 202-204.
Finn, J. 2014a. October 23. New York actor, John Finn learns Irish for new TG4 role! | Today | RTÉ One – YouTube. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kLjsmArEN6E
Finn, J. 2014b. October 23. “Interview: US star John Finn talks TG4’s 5-part thriller An Bronntanas – Scannain”. Retrieved from http://www.scannain.com/interview/an-bronntanas-john-finn#
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_______. 2013. “Dramatising Identity on Irish Language Television: Aifric (TG4) ”. Estudios Irlandeses 8: 43–52.
_______. (forthcoming). “Sin scéal eile – contemporary screen adaptations of Irish stories for TG4”. L’Irlande en séries – Irish TV Series Conference.
Moore, T. 2014. Song of the Sea.
Ní Bhrádaigh, E. 2008. “An Léargas Fiontraíochta”. In E. M. T. O’Connell, J. Walsh, & G. Denvir (Eds.), TG4 @ 10: deich mbliana de TG4/ ten years of TG4 (pp. 137–154). Indreabhán: Cló Iar-Chonnachta.
Northern Ireland Screen. 2014. November 20. “Impressive viewing figures revealed for ILBF funded An Bronntanas”. Retrieved December 10, 2014, from http://www.northernirelandscreen.co.uk/news/3770/impressive-viewing-figures-revealed-for-ilbf-funded-an-bronntanas.aspx
Ó Cofaigh, C. 2014. October 22. IFTN Speaks to “An Bronntanas” Producer Ciarán Ó Cofaigh. Retrieved from http://www.iftn.ie/news/?act1=record&only=1&aid=73&rid=4287665&tpl=archnews&force=1
Ó Domhnaill, R. 2010. The Pipe. documentary.
Quinn, D. 2009. Athshamhlú na teanga i scannánaíocht na Gaeilge: Ros na Rún, an Gearrscannánaíocht, Aifric, Kings agus The Running Mate (Unpublished togra taighde – final year undergraduate research project). NUI Galway.
_______. 2007. Cré na Cille.
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Stacey, P. 2014. October 23. An Bronntanas – TG4’s cracking new thriller as gaeilge – Independent.ie. The Irish Independent. Retrieved from http://www.independent.ie/entertainment/television/tv-reviews/an-bronntanas-tg4s-cracking-new-thriller-as-gaeilge-30686695.html
an tOireachtas. 2012. Gradaim Chumarsáide an Oireachtais 2012. Retrieved December 10, 2014, from http://www.antoireachtas.ie/foirm/foirm-ainmniuchain2.php?PHPSESSID=555419c729437395c410fe254079c106