The Audi Dublin International Film Festival (ADIFF) is a safe-haven for cinema buffs. While not as major an event as say the more famed Cannes, Venice and Toronto-set equivalents, for a week in the year – at least, for movie lovers – there is a definite buzz of excitement. It’s great to see famous actors and directors talk about their art, to watch home-grown or independent movies – not typically given wide cinema runs – on the big screen and to gauge what films will make a stir later in the year come their official release. Over the course of the festival (16-26 February), I saw seven features of varying origin and quality – but all worthy in some way of attention.
My festival experience began slightly late – I missed the opening movie (the Sally Hawkins starring Maudie as well as the highly buzzed about Lady Macbeth). Instead, my first taste was Len Collin’s debut feature Sanctuary (B). The film focuses on Larry (Kieran Coppinger) and Sophie (Charlene Kelly) – two people with special needs in love who bribe their feckless care worker, Tom (Robert Doherty) into renting them a hotel room. However, this breaks the Irish law that those with intellectual disabilities must be married to consummate their relationship.
Sanctuary, rather ambitiously, isn’t black and white about the issues it raises. Although, it’s plot centres on people denied the basic right of any “normal” person – the right to express love physically, the narrative does wrestle with the complications of this premise. A character points out that the law was created to actually protect those with an intellectual disability from being exploited, a consequence of the many sexual abuse cases in Ireland’s recent past. Also, a substantial portion of the drama rests on Larry’s inability to use a condom, having never been taught sex-education growing up, a necessity for teens in most secondary schools. Sanctuary, right up until its dark ending, refuses to be morally simple in its questioning of how society perceives and treats those who are different and require considerate care in Ireland.
Yet, despite its bold and weighty themes, Sanctuary does have tonal problems. For instance, the scenes of Larry and Sophie in their hotel room are beautifully delicate, capturing deftly the happiness, the sadness and the nervousness of the characters’ relationship. Not only is it upsetting that the lovers are trapped by laws built to protect them, it’s as if the two have wanted this time alone for so long, that they never believed it could happen. Now that it has, they are petrified of wasting it. These moments jar with the escapades of the other members of Tom’s care group – who become lost in Galway city – which feel like they are from a much lesser, more accessible mainstream comedy. A comic scene where a character, in an effort to find Tom, karate chops the doors of toilet cubicles – leaving the people using them startled – just doesn’t flow with Sophie’s harrowing tale of the sexual abuse she suffered in the past just a few minutes later. That said, it’s great to see a film starring and centring upon people with special needs that treats them like adults – with natural human desires and urges.
Although not as weighty thematically, Nails (B+) is a movie with a disabled central character that stays tonally consistent. The latest entry in Ireland’s recent renaissance of horror – the film stars the great scream queen Shauna Macdonald (The Descent) as Dana, the victim of a hit and run which has left her paralysed from the waist down and unable to breathe and talk properly. While recuperating, her hospital room is plagued by a malevolent force. However, neither her husband (Steve Wall), her nurse (Ross Noble) or her psychiatrist (Robert O’Mahoney) believe her, with the latter citing PTSD as the cause for Dana’s alarm.
Although Nails in many respects is a pretty standard haunted home story, it’s elevated by its more dramatic elements which actually manage to be scarier than the titular monster. Director Dennis Bartok really succeeds in conveying the terror of Dana’s paralysis through certain editing choices. He shoots the first scene in which we see the hero being bathed in hospital in a manner which deliberately evokes the sensation of watching a sexual assault. The cutting between the pained grimace on Dana’s face to Ross Noble’s Trevor performing the task is what makes this invasion of space all the more palpable for the viewer. We later learn the nurse is a good person just doing his job but in the moment the audience are in the head-space of the trapped protagonist, forced to let a stranger touch her. It’s unsurprising the original title for Nails was P.O.V. as the viewer experiences much of the drama from Dana’s limited point of view, creating an effective claustrophobic feeling.
Even when the movie unveils its ghost’s backstory and loses some of its intrigue – Macdonald’s sterling work and the interesting slant on a well-worn genre keep Nails interesting. Plus, its dark ending separates it further from the likes of the tweenie-aimed Annabelle or Ouija. Nails, instead, fits neatly with interesting horror like Wake Wood, Citadel, The Hallow – movies indicative of the burgeoning Irish horror movement.
A day later, I saw The Transfiguration (C+), a less successful but interesting horror genre film. Black teenager Milo (Eric Ruffian) is a vampire who lives in the projects – or is he. Each month, he goes on the prowl, targeting seedy scum with a pocket knife and drinking their blood. However, things get increasingly more complex when he becomes romantically involved with Sophie (Chloe Levine), a damaged soul with problems of her own, as well as a group of local drug pushers.
Although first-time writer-director Michael O’Shea wears his influences on his sleeve – even mentioning works like George A. Romero’s Martin and Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In within the movie – he builds nice atmosphere. Quiet scenes of observation, sudden graphic violence and very deadpan comedy all intermingle in a way which evokes some comparison to the work of Takeishi Kitano – something which is quite rare in a world of vampire flicks. However, the movie feels more like a collection of ideas (casual racism, depression, animal cruelty all feature but are never commented on in any great depth) than a coherent story – causing The Transfiguration to feel like a padded out short film. Movie buffs who enjoy watching horror tropes being subverted and played with may get a kick out of O’Shea’s debut as it passingly evokes memories of Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction or Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive. However, like its lead character who speaks with very little emotion in his voice, O’Shea’s movie is too airy and intangible to get a proper grasp of. Stephen Porzio
In the upcoming days, stay tuned for Part Two where other premieres – such as the Michael Fassbender starring Trespass Against Us and the closing night movie Handsome Devil – will be covered.