Irish culture is our superpower. It’s what most put us on the map worldwide and it’s time we fully understood and celebrated it.
It takes about 100 years for a colonized country to finally get its groove back. If that country is Ireland, that is.
The nation’s artists have never been more productive, various in their outlooks, or confident in their message and its global reach.
It’s a profound change from the insular, uncertain, approval-seeking nation we were in the 1980s and before. Now, Irish artists have gained a new confidence about who they are, where they come from, and where they’re going, a confidence that marks a major departure from most of the last century. Is it a postcolonial benefit? Who knows, but it’s here.
So let’s start with Irish films. My pick for Irish film of the year – and the decade, in fact – is “The Quiet Girl” (“An Cailín Ciúin.”) Adapted by director Colm Bairéad from the award-winning short story “Foster” by Claire Keegan, it’s one of the most simple and affecting films about Irish life that I have ever seen committed to film.
If Irish filmmaking exists on a continuum with “Darby O’Gill and The Little People” on one end and “The Banshees of Inisherin” somewhere in the middle, then “The Quiet Girl” (“An Cailín Ciúin”) stands at the opposite end, in a place of stark realism and quiet poetry. In the place of art, in other words.
Bairéad’s accomplishment is to introduce a much-needed realism to the screen depictions of how we actually live and love. With his deep background in documentary filmmaking, he has developed an aversion to any kind of cheap sentiment or theatrical flourish, meaning he instead delivers films where the smallest change can have the force of an avalanche.
That’s certainly the case in “The Quiet Girl” (“An Cailín Ciúin”) which is my most enthusiastic Oscar pick for 2023. It simply stands head and shoulders above every other Irish or Irish adjacent film that I’ve seen this year, featuring flawless turns from newcomer Catherine Clinch and equally memorable performances from co-stars Carrie Crowley and Joan Sheehy.
Like the story of Cinderella, “The Quiet Girl” (“An Cailín Ciúin”) is about the devastation of lovelessness in childhood. It’s set in 1981 in rural Ireland and Cáit (gifted newcomer Catherine Clinch) is a neglected young girl who’s struggling amid her dysfunctional family, in a chaotic house that’s full of conflict.
Pregnant again and unable to face a house full of young mouths to feed, her exhausted mother hits on the idea of sending Cáit, the least important one, away for the summer to stay with her sister and her husband in a house that’s many miles away from all Cáit has ever known.
But here’s where the story takes an unexpected turn. In the care of her aunt Eibhlin she slowly comes to life and this Cinderella-like transformation from kitchen drudge to confident young girl is a joy to watch.
“All you needed was a little minding,” her aunt tells her, pleased with her progress, as “The Quiet Girl” (“An Cailín Ciúin”) reminds us that love is all she – or any of us – have ever needed.
Meanwhile, 2022 was actor Paul Mescal’s breakthrough year as a screen actor of international stature in two perfectly made, but wildly different vehicles. First came “God’s Creatures,” with the 26-year-old playing a prodigal son who dramatically returns to his village after years abroad just as once dramatically vanished.
Set in a coastal town in Co Sligo, the film is a pitch-perfect portrait of a haunted Irish rural community and a mother (Emily Watson) who spends far too much of her time trying to persuade herself she can’t see what’s in front of her face.
Watson is captivating as Aileen O’Hara, the hard-working wife and mother who is so glad her prodigal son Brian (Mescal) has come back from a sojourn in Australia that she’s determined to ask no hard questions like where he was, why he left, how he supported himself or why he has suddenly returned?
As Brian, the confident but strangely distant son whose sudden presence after years away is a puzzle to many, Mescal’s character is increasingly unsettling, hinting at violence just beneath the surface.
I found “God’s Creatures” had the slow burn of a good horror film, where nothing is ever quite what it seems and people’s wishful thinking – Watson’s in particular – is rarely rewarded.
Men are everywhere in this perfectly realized film but the story really belongs to women, who are usually the last to realize they don’t really own anything in the town, including their homes, their independence, or their own destinies.
Mescal’s other big turn this year was in “Aftersun,” a dazzling, moving, and unforgettable picture of a moment in time in the early 2000s that has haunted the memory of his now grown-up daughter.
A film that reminds you of the power and possibility of the medium itself, the unforgettable new film has Mescal as a haunted young father in what may well – and in my opinion are – his final days on earth.
Mescal plays Calum, a 31-year-old Scottish father who has broken up with his former partner but still takes his daughter Sophie on a short summer holiday to Turkey to prove to her – and probably himself – that he’s still a good man, not a deadbeat dad.
We see him tool about the downmarket tourist resort, participate in some holiday activities with Sophie, and interestingly we also see him flirt with a young male diving instructor (is he bisexual, is that why the relationship with his partner ended?)
There is a rich darkness haunting the edge of the screen in this powerful new film, just as there is in life, and that unsettling awareness makes “Aftersun” a particularly satisfying journey.
In theatre, newcomer Asher Muldoon, son of the poet Paul Muldoon, had a palpable hit with his musical version of “The Butcher Boy” (based on the Pat McCabe classic). What made Muldoon’s musical so interesting is that it put the most marginal person in an Irish town center stage, giving him a spotlight, a song, and a point of view and then letting him quite literally rip and good lord was it thrilling.
People talk about the surreal qualities of McCabe’s original story, often missing the heartache at its core. But McCabe and Muldoon keep a gimlet eye on the hard truths that propel the story and when they were revealed they were shattering, making this a particularly satisfying night at the theatre.
Finally, as the testament of a spirit, they don’t come much purer than Gabrial Byrne’s impressively accomplished turn on Broadway in his superb show “Walking With Ghosts.“
The most private of men, who knew that he could Brian Freil a run for his money in this by turns hilarious and harrowing performance based on his own bestselling memoir.
Byrne’s show offered one of the richest meditations on Irish life I have seen on a stage in years, surpassing many of our own current crop of playwrights whose job he successfully gunned for here, in a story I carried with me long after the lights came up.
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