Film Review | Can The Drummer and the Keeper Overcome Stereotypes to Depict Asperger’s on Screen?

Recent high-profile deaths in the music industry have thrown up questions around troubled artists being driven and inspired by emotional turmoil. Can demons be exorcised through creativity? Or does the demand for inspiration start driving destructive behaviour? This chicken-and-egg situation is given a timely exploration in The Drummer and the Keeper.

‘The Drummer’ of the title is Gabriel (Dermot Murphy), a skilled musician with pretentious musings about rock star life to justify his substance abuse and rowdiness. His band mates and his sister Alice (Aoibhinn McGinnity) hold an intervention for him. He has been diagnosed with “bipolar disorder with delusional and psychotic episodes”. Gabriel is told to get appropriate treatment or he’s out of the band. He agrees to seek help, even though he is repelled by the prospect of being on medication for the rest of his life.

The Drummer and the Keeper. -
The Drummer and the Keeper. Source

A somewhat clunky set-up sees his therapist encourage him to take up football at a local home for disabled youths. There he meets ‘The Keeper’ of the title. Christopher (Jacob McCarthy) is the goalkeeper, he is about to turn 18 and he has Asperger Syndrome. I have Asperger Syndrome too. How do I feel about the film’s portrayal of my condition? I begrudgingly admit I also played in goal in school.

As Gabriel tries bending the rules, Christopher launches into long-winded complaints about Gabriel cheating because he broke the rules and rules are important and everyone knows the rules and get it, audience? He likes things ordered and logical because he has Asperger’s! The football coach demands they make up and an awkward friendship begins.


It would be nice to see a portrayal of Asperger Syndrome that didn’t rely on the usual stereotypes and alienating character traits. Christopher’s voice emphasises the last syllable of sentences like a reverse-Australian (or something). He says, “inCHES” and “concentraTING” and just generally speaks with a distracting intonation I’ve never heard from someone on the autistic spectrum.

Christopher’s avoidance of any eye contact whatsoever is also laid on a bit thick. Eye contact feels intense, as if you’re being judged, when you’re on the autistic spectrum. Christopher’s overdone aversion to a moment’s eye contact is a visual shorthand of audience stereotypes of autism. It serves to ‘other’ Christopher. Even though he is also a titular character, the film is Gabriel’s story.

[perfectpullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”#F42A2A” class=”” size=”18"]As an autistic viewer, I actually found myself relating more to Gabriel than Christopher.[/[/perfectpullquote]em>

We never feel Christopher’s perspective the way we feel Gabriel’s. As an autistic viewer, I actually found myself relating more to Gabriel than Christopher. Gabriel’s simmering anxiety when interacting with people feels more familiar to me than Christopher’s prissiness. There is after all, overlap in the symptoms of Asperger’s and bipolar disorder. That could have been interesting to explore but the closest thing we get to that is learning of their mutual discomfort with handshakes.

The Drummer and the Keeper builds towards an implausible third act and ends without exploring much new ground. The only new thing it offers in its portrayal of Asperger’s is a scene of panicked discussion that Asperger’s is being “abolished”. This refers to the recent decision by the psychiatric community to discontinue Asperger Syndrome as a diagnosis and use the broader term autism spectrum disorder. At least this scene resolves peculiar dialogue earlier in the film where Christopher says Asperger’s is “not real autism”, even though that’s one of the most offensive things you can say to someone with Asperg– *sigh* autism spectrum disorder.

The writer and director Nick Kelly has a son on the autistic spectrum. Several scenes feature autistic extras (if only there was some big autistic role that an autistic actor could have been cast in). The Asperger’s advocacy group Aspire were consultants on the film. This demonstrates goodwill on the filmmakers’ part but it doesn’t excuse the film’s shortcomings. After all, there was the far more egregious case of Alfonso Cuarón, who also has an autistic son. He directed the “I Am Autism” PSA for the eugenicist group Autism Speaks. Aside from the offence it caused, it was appallingly terrible film-making, especially from the director who had just made Children of Men.

In the case of The Drummer and the Keeper, there are many aspects of the film that do work well. From hearing the story described, you’d think this would be a grim chore of a film to watch and it isn’t. The superb sound mixing and astute choice of music throughout help to sell Gabriel’s perspective. The editing gets clever towards the end, with brief moments of the future intercut with a character’s plan being outlined. This builds intrigue for the story in a way more Irish films should do.

[p[perfectpullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”#F42A2A” class=”” size=”16"]other was Hannah Mamalis who brought moving vulnerability to a singing scene that could have turned sappy with the wrong actor. She only appears briefly in one other scene as an autistic girl named Ciara.[/pe[/perfectpullquote]>

When it comes to the acting, Dermot Murphy delivers an intense performance, with just enough warmth to bring a poignant nuance to Gabriel’s roughness. One standout of the solid supporting cast was the football coach played by Adrian Hudson. Another was Hannah Mamalis who brought moving vulnerability to a singing scene that could have turned sappy with the wrong actor. She only appears briefly in one other scene as an autistic girl named Ciara. Perhaps the surprise of the singing scene adds to its impact, but perhaps it would have been stronger with more build-up time with that character. After all, autistic women are under-represented in films about autism.

Jacob McCarthy’s Christopher was just too stereotypical to feel like a real character. This character was too important to have been conceived so unimaginatively and misses a golden opportunity to really show the audience the perspective of an autistic person. That is why, in spite of many things this film has going for it, The Drummer and the Keeper doesn’t work for me. Having said all this, I am writing a web-series about autism. So I better leave it there before I talk myself into a corner.

The Drummer and the Keeper is in cinemas September 8th.

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