While I would mostly recommend it, I’m not sure if there is a more frustrating film this year than Tomás Ó Súilleabháin’s Arracht. We sincerely hope this becomes a landmark for Irish-language cinema, but the more generic storytelling makes it hard to know if it will live long in the memory.
It is, of course, too heavy a burden on any film to suggest it should bear responsibility for revitalizing a language decimated by centuries of colonial tyranny. It’s not the film’s fault, but nonetheless Arracht has the unfair feeling of having a lot riding on it in that regard. (The last noteworthy non-documentary release of this kind was 2007’s now largely-forgotten Kings.) This should not be the case, but the film industry can be a fickle business.
Things start off superbly. We are introduced to Colmán Sharkey, played exquisitely with restraint and repressed rage by Connemara native Dónall Ó Héalai. It’s the west coast of Ireland in the 19th century, in the early years of what became known as the Great Hunger. Fisherman Colman lives modestly on rented land with a wife and child as well as his trustworthy brother Seán. The looming spectre of the catastrophic potato blight is an already established threat when former soldier Pasty, a mysterious and unpredictable companion, arrives on the scene.
Considering the historical setting and economic reality faced by our characters, we already know this is all only going south. Just as Colman begins to notice the fungus-like microorganism devastating his crop, he learns of his English landlord’s intention to raise his rent to a rate he cannot possibly hope to pay. Tagged along by his brother and a fired-up Patsy, Colman visits the landowner’s wealthy estate in a vain attempt to get him to reconsider. This early section is no doubt the strongest. The first utterance of the English language here reminds one of that man’s unwanted appearance at the kitchen table in Portrait of a Lady on Fire: a cruel, untoward incursion on the safe space enjoyed by our characters.
Game of Thrones star Michael McElhatton is wise to eschew moustache-twirling villainy as our landlord. There’s a dumbfounded ignorance to his callous outlook that makes his inhumanity all the more, well, chillingly human. Perhaps most egregious is his character’s insistence that his tenants must enjoy playing traditional music for him in his household. The thought he might be reducing them to performing monkeys simply fearful of eviction seems not to cross his mind. Another standout performer is Dara Deveany as Patsy. Deveany, one to watch for the future, can convey more menace with the not-so surreptitious lick of his teeth than the sum total of antagonists in the MCU.
That brilliant, early sequence concludes with a harrowing, bloody denouement; but perhaps it’s too good. Or more aptly, Arracht’s more intriguing story beats are wrapped up too early here. Without giving too much away, the narrative then jumps ahead a couple years until we find ourselves at the apex of the famine’s devastation. We get an unflinchingly bleak, impressionistic sequence in a seaside cave that should horrify us but doesn’t land with the impact required. Instead, it serves to clunkily truncate the worst horrors of the famine and leaves a fugitive Colman as the only already-established player to feature for much of the remaining runtime.
Don’t get us wrong, Ó Héalai is more than capable of carrying a film on his (increasingly scrawny) shoulders. The problem is more he shouldn’t have to. Arracht has been widely compared to Black ‘47 and categorised as a revenge drama, but vengeance as a motivation only really rears its head, if at all, in the final third. That main motivation instead comes in the form of a young girl who is connected to those early scenes in a somewhat contrived fashion. We get a derivative setup: a person who loses everything then finds the strength to keep going in the taking care of a vulnerable, orphaned child. We’ve seen this before and it doesn’t live up to the promise of those early scenes.
While the script has its issues, both Ó Súilleabháin’s direction and Kate McCullough’s cinematography are nonetheless exemplary. The wintry, barren landscape of Ireland’s west is presented to us with a palpable, chilly bitterness that complements the near apocalyptic nature of the scenario. Generally, the austere Arracht has a more impressive sense of verisimilitude than the comparatively ‘pulpy’ Black ‘47. We are chilled to the bone when watching the winds batter the near-skeletal body of Colman. The arduous recreation of era-specific handline fishing or demonstration of the methodical approach of creating medicinal seaweed solutions are welcome details.
Overall, Arracht is a welcome sight, and the experience of seeing a decent irish-language drama on the big screen is a rare enough occurrence to warrant a trip to the cinema. It’s success at festivals and audience anticipation suggest it could well be the beginning of a new trend in Irish film. Dónall Ó Héalai’s next film is the already acclaimed and Gaeilge-heavy Foscadh, so perhaps Ó Súilleabháin and crew have already won. To repeat myself, we sincerely hope so.