Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Tiger's Tail

2006, Ireland, directed by John Boorman

Since their highly successful 1998 collaboration The General - based on the life of the Dublin criminal Martin Cahill - Brendan Gleeson has been a fixture in John Boorman's work; The Tiger's Tail returns him to center stage, and to Dublin, for a rough-edged satire on modern Ireland. It's an uneven film, full of unexpected shifts in tone, sometimes bluntly funny, then disconcertingly serious, but when it hangs together it's compelling, and enjoyably disrespectful of sacred cows.

Gleeson plays Liam O'Leary, a highly successful property developer emblematic of the Celtic Tiger, who becomes convinced he sees his doppelgänger at every turn, causing him to call his entire life into question. As with a film like Emmanuel Carrère's La Moustache the film is a very serious kind of fable, that hinges entirely on suspension of disbelief. Unfortunately, it only works up to a point: it's difficult to take the double's infiltration entirely seriously, particularly in a deeply questionable - even in the satirical context - rape scene involving O'Leary's wife (Kim Cattrall), though Gleeson does a fine job distinguishing between the two characters.
Gleeson always seems on strongest ground when he's at home - his accents sometimes leave a little to be desired, though that's not the case here - and he carries the film through many of its weaker patches, accompanied by a veritable galaxy of Irish character actors in the smaller roles. As you might expect with Boorman, the film is visually strong, with atmospheric camerawork from Seamus Deasy, who also shot The General (in beautiful black and white).

The film is most successful as an indictment of the direction of contemporary Ireland - it's no accident that O'Leary is a developer, driving property prices ever higher in a fragile pyramid of excess - with Boorman turning an especially jaundiced eye on his adoptive home (he counters the accusation of rose-eyed nostalgia with an acid commentary on the social values of the past, too). Two sequences stand out in particular: the puking excesses on a weekend night in Dublin's Temple Bar, and his hellish vision of a hospital casualty ward (though the plotting required to take the viewer there seems contrived). The Temple Bar segment is a brilliantly conceived living nightmare, where drunken young people stagger around like the zombies of Shaun of the Dead (with Shaun initially unaware that they are any different from the average blear-eyed Londoner), while the casualty scenes might have been lifted from the accounts of dreadful hospital experiences that regularly grace the pages of The Irish Times.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States