Film Feature: The Importance of Being Irish

 
 

With the IFTAs just passed, Film and TV Editor Jon Hozier-Byrne examines why people don’t give Irish films a chance

What’s wrong with Irish cinema? For a small nation, we produce some high quality feature films, and much higher quality short animations. For a remarkably small homegrown industry, we make internationally successful, widely acclaimed pictures, from My Left Foot to The Commitments. For an island with a miniscule population, we’ve produced three of the most gifted directors of their respective generations, in Jim Sheridan, Neil Jordan and Lenny Abrahamson. Even Alfred Hitchcock’s mother was Irish, a fact he tried endlessly to obfuscate.

Why then does Irish cinema’s natural audience, the Irish people, seem to ignore homegrown cinema to such a profound extent? Why is it that the likes of Once was infinitely more acclaimed in the US than it was here? Surely it is an art of Irish concerns, made for the consumption and consideration of the Irish people?

Well, no. The vast majority of times, when we see an Irish film, we’re more likely to treat it with suspicion than with excitement. We’re naturally wary of any Irish film that tries to deliver a message, or make a statement, or even just take itself seriously as a piece of artifice. “What’s that, is Crushproof trying to make a statement about youth recidivism in the council estates of North Dublin? Well let’s not watch that then, that sounds ghastly.”

What’s most peculiar is that, as an audience, we seem far more inclined to treat a ‘serious’ Irish film with any gravity if a foreign director is telling it. Why is it that we’re so ready to scoff at the poignant orchestral swelling or bold characterization of Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins as “emotionally manipulative”, whereas when the same devices are used by Ken Loach in The Wind That Shakes The Barley or Steve McQueen in Hunger, it is worthy of fanatical critical acclaim? Why is it, paradoxically, only ok for the English to tell our story for us?

One might argue that it comes down to the bizarre national ‘begrudgery’ that pervades us as a people. We don’t consider ourselves to be a ‘cool’ people, or even more abstractly, we don’t consider homegrown cinema to be ‘authentic.’ How many of us readily scoffed when we heard Jim Sheridan would direct Get Rich Or Die Tryin’?

The Irish people have a very peculiar view of ourselves, or at the very least, we have very specific tastes when it comes to Irish people being portrayed in Irish cinema. If you look at the major Irish films that have been massively successful since the start of the Celtic Tiger – Intermission, In Bruges, Perrier’s Bounty, Adam and Paul or the genuinely brilliant Garage to name but a few – they all have one key element in common; they represent an underclass.

Back when we all had money and ‘dole’ was simply a variety of banana, we looked to our national cinema to portray us as we really are, or to portray the Irish man with what we perceived to be ‘authenticity’. Of course, it was absolute nonsense; we were an affluent nation of affluent people, attending an over-priced cinema and spending too much on a tiny bag of greasy popcorn.

But as a people, we don’t like to think of ourselves that way. We don’t like to imagine ourselves as upwardly mobile, as masters of our own destiny. No, not us Irish – we’re more the cheeky, working-class, rough and ready wanderer types. None of your duck liver pâté for me thanks, I’ll have a bowl of undercooked coddle and a side of Catholic repression, thank you very much.

At some point in the 2000s, we all decided we secretly wanted to be Colin Farrell, and that was all there was for it. Big budget Irish films that tried to portray modern, Celtic Tiger Ireland more realistically (like About Adam starring Kate Hudson, or Boy Eats Girl starring, tragically, Samantha Mumba) became dramatic failures at the box office, simply by virtue of the fact that we don’t like admitting that we’re wealthy, as it somehow makes us ‘inauthentic’, like a 56-year-old Irish director making a biopic about 50 Cent.

As a direct result, the only Irish films most of us are ever likely to see will normally have Collin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson or Cillian Murphy acting all tough, yet remaining somehow loveable. Conversely, actors like Pierce Brosnan or Jonathan Rhys Meyers, who’ve made their careers out of playing super-powerful male roles, we view as somehow Anglicised, more British than Irish. And as such, they are not quite as dear to our mercurial hearts.

The great irony of this, of course, is the fact that Farrell and Murphy both came from very privileged backgrounds, whereas Brosnan and Rhys Meyers had two of the most difficult, poverty-stricken upbringings imaginable. Ultimately, we only like Irish films if it represents us the way we idealise ourselves, and woe betide any director that doesn’t cast Colm Meaney as a bad-mouthed hardman.

So, what’s wrong with Irish cinema? Apparently it’s the people watching it.

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