Ken Wardrop's first documentary feature delivers on the promise of shorts like Farewell Packets of Ten and Undressing My Mother, developing a fascinating portrait of life in the Irish midlands with emotional depth and striking visual skill. Like most of his short films, the subject matter is inspired by his own family history, particularly that of his mother: the film is a series of vignettes from numerous women, each narrating a minute of two of their own lives, with the film moving from birth to death in a brisk 80 minutes.
Men are absent from the film in physical terms, but their presence hovers constantly - even persistently - offscreen, for almost all of the women talk about brothers, fathers, sons, husbands, partners rather than about themselves. Indeed, at times it's as though the women exist only in relation to the male presences in their lives - even after those men have left - which tends to suggest a rather traditional view of Irish women. That is often reinforced by the ways in which Wardrop films women exclusively confined to their homes or gardens, as though there are no other domains in which they might define and articulate themselves (few of them speak about work, for instance, and most of them refer to household tasks). It's not clear whether Wardrop is implying that Irish society itself doesn't allow for more varied female portraits - perhaps that's the question he's asking us to ponder, since the film is free of explanatory paraphernalia.
Wardrop's cinematographers, Michael Lavelle and Kate McCullough, do extraordinary work, finding constant surprises in otherwise ordinary Midlands homes, shooting rooms in a style that splits the screen as we look through two doors simultaneously, or through windows to the world beyond. That visual playfulness nicely underlines Wardrop's witty cuts from one story to the next, and the rich vein of humour that persists almost to the end of his film.