Wednesday, April 23, 2008


2007, Ireland, directed by Lenny Abrahamson

Now that I live overseas, I'm no longer as aware of developments in Irish film, but Lenny Abrahamson's work in both Adam and Paul and Garage strikes me as something strikingly different in my native country's cinema; I'm intrigued, too, by what I've read of his 2007 television project Prosperity, scripted, like both of his feature films, by Mark O'Halloran. While Abrahamson is by no means the first filmmaker to take on subjects like urban poverty or rural disenchantment, his filmmaking style steers carefully around sentimentality, while he prefers a careful accumulation of details over the payoff of a more conventional narrative. He's also adept at crafting rounded portraits of people on the margins, and restoring some measure of humanity to them in the process: he seems to have a persistent desire to validate the experiences of those dealt a less fortunate hand by life, particularly against a backdrop of economic triumphalism in Ireland.

Abrahamson's storytelling method allows him to give an acute sense of the repetitive daily routines of Adam and Paul or, here, Josie (Pat Shortt), the sole full-time employee of a sad-sack petrol station somewhere in the midlands. Josie's a slow-witted man, though he has an agonising sense of his own limitations, and an desperate awareness of what is missing from his life - most obviously any sense of sustained companionship. As such, he has a tendency to cling to the smallest hints of friendship or tolerance, thus revealing the deep loneliness and - not unrelated - sexual frustration that often characterises small towns with few social outlets.

Abrahamson isn't interested in cliched portrayals of Irish life, refusing to depict the pub, for instance, as a place of refuge: instead, it's the theatre for some of Josie's most intense humiliations, whether at the hands of a local bully or, even more tellingly, through the complicity of the remainder of the patrons (the pub sequence in Adam and Paul was similarly fraught with tension). It's refreshing to see someone scratch well beneath the surface in this way - there's something of the sensibility of writers like William Trevor and, especially, John McGahern at work - and I wonder if, in Abrahamson's case, his clear-eyed depiction of Ireland is linked to the fact that he spent a number of years overseas, returning with something of an outsider's eye for detail.
For that matter, it's relative outsiders who are most sympathetic to Josie, whether in the form of a teenager who appears to be a fairly recent arrival in town, or an English truck-driver now locally resident who treats Josie with something approaching genuine warmth. The teenager is a part-time summer employee at the garage - though the establishment hardly needs an extra pair of hands, with so few customers - and he opens up a small new horizon for Josie in terms of social contact of a limited kind. The character also provides the trigger for the film's biggest plot development, which unfolds with spare Bressonian logic.
Even with some new window opening in his life, communication, though, is desperately difficult for Josie, as it is for many of the characters in the film. There's a uncomfortable scene where the great stage actor Tom Hickey unburdens himself, and Mark O'Halloran's script perfectly captures the way in which social niceties mask any real connection; there's no shortage of conversation, but it's often deeply unsatisfying.
As Josie, Pat Shortt is remarkable: he's an adept comic actor and a skilled social observer himself, including in his television show Killinaskully, which examines rural Ireland through a broadly satirical lens, but nothing in his previous work prepares you for the depth of his characterisation here. Abrahamson taps into Shortt's talent for physical performance, so that even when we first see Josie in a long shot, we're aware of the unique way in which he moves. That paunchy awkwardness is of a piece with Josie's way of bumping through the world, and while the overall tone is serious Abrahamson uses Shortt's physicality to craft some wonderful comic moments that enhance our sense of Josie's worldview (one sequence where he cleans up the aftermath of a teenage party is priceless).
Abrahamson seems as comfortable in a rural register as he has previously in urban settings, capturing down-at-heel locations like the garage in pitiless detail, but he's also capable of stunning painterly compositions, such as the shot which appears at the top of this post. Similarly, there's a gorgeous shot near the end that evokes a Constable painting, while the camera occasionally focuses in on the tiniest details of the landscape, as in the opening scenes of Adam and Paul (Irish people might be put in mind of the pastoral images that used to appear on the screen back when the national anthem concluded each night of television programming). His intention, however, is not to evoke a bucolic idyll; the often captivating settings serve instead as a counterpoint to the careful dissection of flawed people that inhabit that landscape, and perhaps a reminder that there's something more enduring that human frailty.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I found this movie to be almost overwhelmingly sad but at the same time so honest and unmanipulative that I had to watch the whole thing. I definitely want to watch this director's other movie, but not right away.


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