University College Dublin and Trinity College Dublin
The Daisy Chain (Irl, 2009)
Director: Aisling Walsh
Writer: Lauren Mackenzie
Principal Cast: Samantha Morton, Steven Mackintosh, Mhairi Anderson
Cinematographer: Simon Kossoff
Music: David Julyan
Producer: Graham Begg, Jamie Carmichael, Linda James, Tristan Lynch, Aoife O’Sullivan, Meinir Stoutt, Dominic Wright
Aisling Walsh’s latest film The Daisy Chain (Walsh 2008) is a complex exploration of the human potential for evil. Martha (Samantha Morton) and Tomas Conroy (Steven Mackintosh), an urbanite English couple, return to his birthplace in an isolated village on the west coast of Ireland to set up home. They take in Daisy Gahan (Mhairi Anderson), a child whose family has just died, even though locals suspect that she might be possessed by a demonic fairy changeling. Those who try to control the child or get close to her surrogate mother Martha, die. The villagers ostracise and try to kill the young girl, convinced she is a fairy and hoping to bring back the real child. The Daisy Chain explores the figure of the disturbed child as folk monster, alternately suggesting the child’s antisocial behaviour as the result of autism, abuse or evil.
Mirroring life, the film is imbued with post-Celtic Tiger notions on the importance of prioritising simple pleasures and community life, and the obsession with appropriating culpability for the problems with which we are faced. The problems of a small town are projected onto a girl who is viewed as a supernatural devil, responsible for the ills of a society too blind to see that it is they who have created them. It is a clear lesson for a society that often blames the media for the evils of children who kill and mame, and which is still coming to terms with a long history of institutional abuse.
Martha is undergoing a difficult pregnancy following the loss of her first baby through cot death. She attaches huge importance to caring for Daisy, perhaps because she is still mourning her child, perhaps because she recognises how much this troubled child needs love. If we read her through concepts such as the ‘archaic mother’ and the ‘monstrous-feminine’ (see Creed 1993), perhaps her own memories of hysteria and abuse give her the desire to open her heart to Daisy. By contrast her husband rejects the child, perhaps out of jealousy, and yet his fears appear justified at the end of the film. The final sequence takes on an otherwordly nightmare-fantasy element as the myths become ‘real’. We see the fairy/child force Martha into birth and then take the baby for herself while Martha lies, presumably dead, in a pool of blood. Tomas takes the baby away and the film ends.
Here, as in Changeling (Eastwood 2008), missing children take on a supernatural quality, and the boundaries of truth and fiction are blurred. In Walsh’s film Celtic notions compound the confusion as the child evokes pagan ideas of the changeling, a fairy who replaces a kidnapped child, identifiable by her screaming, estrangement and destructive actions. As Martha flicks through a fairy book for children early on in the film, it is clear to see the similarity between this elfin child Daisy and the mythical creatures. The film thus uses the power of suggestion to challenge our modern/Christian rejection of such elements and speaks to our subconscious, pre-historic suspicion that there’s more here than meets the eye.
The trope of rural Ireland as the romantic or the sublime and the idea of the freedom of the wild is undermined here. Most scenes are filmed indoors in the cramped confines of a labourer’s cottage, a doctor’s surgery, a hospital waiting room. Once the locals come to the conclusion that Daisy is spreading disease and death, the police tell the family to send Daisy to an institution to be looked after by specialists, or risk their lives. This makes the great outdoors a place to fear and evade, and leaves the protagonists confined to an emotionally and physically claustrophobic space. The encircling imagery of the enclosed cottage, faced on one side by a murderous old man (who tries to kill the fairy), and on others by the wild west coast, evokes the mystery and tragedy of the remote space in which this drama unfolds. The theatrical tableau of the space is reinforced by the observational camerawork which both obscures and constructs our view of this world, just as the picturesque view of the rural is itself a construction.
The Daisy Chain draws on The Butcher Boy (Jordan 1997) in its use of horror tropes to illuminate the social neglect of a child in a rural community. As Martin McLoone (2000) controversially argues with regard to The Butcher Boy, Francie Brady (Eamonn Owens) may be taken to represent Ireland both as the abused child of history and as a place losing touch with its own identity where myth and reality blend into one and old values are lost. Just as Francie is disregarded as a “pig”, and abandoned, Daisy is found living like an animal and treated as an unwanted stain on the community.
Like Exposure (Walsh 1978) – where a French woman’s modern take on morality shakes up a rural town and results in her violation by three men obsessed with her – the film presents the foreign within the traditional Irish rural community as exciting, threatening, sexual, immoral and fatal. Martha’s foreign modern outlook exists in opposition to her neighbours’ superstitious fears and binaried perspective. She refuses to be fenced in by fear or fixed beliefs. Upon arrival in the cottage she takes down the crucifix above the bed which, from the difference in colour its absence reveals on the wall, appears never to have been removed before. She rejects the locals’ impression of the girl as well as their attempts to send the girl to a home. She continues to visit and treat with affection the old man who lives next door despite the threat he poses to Daisy. Martha finds difference engaging while the locals find it troubling. Her outlook results in her demise.
The key themes of hybridity, impurity and loss in The Daisy Chain, also seen in rural-set Irish horror films such as Isolation (O’Brien 2005), Shrooms(Breathnach 2007) and Seer (Courtney 2008), can be read as expressions of the fear of difference, a fear which Gerardine Meaney sees as shaping the national identity as it navigates the overwhelming change in Ireland brought about by the recent boom years of immigration, economic growth, urban expansion and multiculturalism:
Irish ‘identity’ is it seems, poised between rational self-awareness and the deployment of historically produced paranoid localism in the interest of a highly accelerated techno-globalisation… If we are to proceed to accept the strange and the migrant as no more nor less than our shared conditions of being, then we must begin with an acknowledgement of the history of difference, (m)othering the nation (2007: 62).
Following the first significant wave of immigration in the late 1990s after the birth of the ‘Celtic Tiger’, the focus on alleged ‘citizenship tourism’ (having babies in Ireland to gain citizenship) resulted in a new Citizenship Act (2004) guaranteeing Irish nationality only to those with blood rights (see Garner 2007). This rejection of difference was centred on the non-white, non-European migrant and maintained the idea that there was a core Irish identity to protect. In The Daisy Chain, many myths of difference are dispelled; the foreign pregnant mother is white and European (an accurate racial reflection of the majority of migrants to Ireland), the cross-cultural history of Ireland is exposed in Martha and Tomas’ productive union (also evoking the earlier hybridising efforts of the Normans and Danes), and the strange and different is abject but infantilised. Martha finds peace by (m)othering the nation, as Meaney suggested, through this fairy/child who blossoms once accepted. Yet, their unconditional love grows into an obsession and, although we never see Daisy commit a crime, her jealousy is clearly a factor in the many accidents that befall anyone who tries to get close to Martha. Walsh reinforces our suspicions about Daisy’s powers by offering no alternative cause for the deaths that occur in this small community, thus placing us in the position of the fearsome locals.
Aisling Walsh is one of few Irish female filmmakers and the first to make an impact on the horror genre. Her work is preoccupied with the experience of the repressed, the migrant and the alien. Like The Daisy Chain, her last film, Song for a Raggy Boy (2003), focused on subjective interpretation, the foreigner within, and the need to articulate the truth of ourselves and our histories. In a sense both films are explorations of love, its effect on our memory, and its position as the source of our motivations. Her films centralise sexuality and religion, exploring the historical impetus of these culturally entwined elements on the Irish psyche, and in particular, the effect of the church on Irish masculinity.
Despite the prominence of women in The Daisy Chain, the father is in many ways the most identifiable character, recognisable as an everyman in his flaws and his fears. Although the spectator may wish to embody the heroic altruism of Martha and defend the weak, it is more likely that we would act like Tomas, remaining on the fence between her position and that of the majority, before allowing our jealousy to justify expelling the child. As Tomas becomes more and more obsessed with the loss of his wife he comes to mirror Daisy, wanting Martha all to himself. In this way Walsh’s style veers away from key Irish female filmmakers such as Margo Harkin and Pat Murphy and bears more commonalities with the work of Chantal Akerman and specifically her 2000 film The Captive, in its exploration of male vulnerability, insecurity and obsession.
The Daisy Chain may be read as a response to the latest wave of Irish cinema, known as Celtic Tiger Cinema, which has focused on the new cultural focus on materialism and sex. Yet in concurrence with these films The Daisy Chainexplicitly visualises the death of the old Ireland, while recalling its pre-Christian past and inherent hybridity. As Martin McLoone explains: ‘The[se] films seem to suggest that Catholic, Nationalist Ireland is now merely a faded memory passed down to Ireland’s young population from their grandparents (or, ironically gleamed from those Irish films that seem to be obsessed by this dead past)’ (2008: 46). Here that reality is little more than the trace of a crucifix.
The Daisy Chain follows in the footsteps of earlier Irish cinema by deconstructing traditional ideals and reimagining the position of family, religion, gender and sexuality. It attempts to de-essentialise the cinematic tropes of Ireland, and to explore the contradictions and complexities of Irish identity, its multiplicity rather than singularity, its past and its future. Yet,The Daisy Chain could also be accused of reinforcing stereotypes of soft primitivism (in its allusions to changelings and simple country folk), as well as criticised for its possibly regressive representation of autism. And the representation of femininity as monstrous and murderous might well be read as a return to the idea of the feminine as abject. However, The Daisy Chainmight also be read as a film which presents prejudiced positions in order to destroy them, in contrast to movies which are so desperate to be politically correct that they whitewash over the prevalence of real discrimination. This film outlines the prejudice faced by those who disturb cultural insularity. It considers the ease with which social hysteria is created both onscreen and off, as the sophisticated spectator is reduced to elemental beliefs and becomes fearful of what may in reality be just an unusual child.
Shrooms, Isolation, Seer and The Daisy Chain question the benefits of modernity, interrogate the history of Ireland and challenge elements of social politics and contemporary culture through mythology. In all of these films, the victim is also quite possibly the attacker, as illuminated in the final sequence of The Daisy Chain where the child is both nurturer and killer. Here, as in films on abused revenging women such as Hard Candy (Slade 2005), Kill Bill (Tarantino 2003) and The Brave One (Jordan 2007), characters co-exist on the borderlands of humanity, abused and abusing, monstrous feminine and feminine ideal. But The Daisy Chain is more than a feminist polemic, it is an enquiry into the workings of the human mind and the society that produces. Like the best of its genre, The Daisy Chain refuses simple conclusions and terrifies through uncertainty and the fear of the unimaginable. As an investigation into the existential it is a complex achievement, and one of the most interesting horrors of Irish cinema.
Creed, Barbara. 1993. The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. Routledge.
Garner, Steve. 2007. Whiteness: An Introduction. Routledge.
McLoone, Martin. 2008. Film, Media and Popular Culture in Ireland. Dublin: Irish Academic Press.
Meaney, Gerardine. 2007. “Not Irish Enough? Masculinity and Ethnicity in The Wire and Rescue me”, Postmodernism and Irish Popular Culture, ed. by Edited by Wanda Balzano, Anne Mulhall and Moynagh Sullivan. London: Palgrave Macmillan.