I read an article a little while ago (which is now locked to registered users of the Irish Times) in which director Neil Jordan suggested that, as a nation, we are too kind to our own films. Not that he was complaining, as he felt that he was doing quite nicely from the somewhat softer criticism.
However, always ready to cause a minor kerfuffle (that’s not an insult – it’s one of the reasons why I like him), Irish Times film critic Donald Clarke took time out to post this observation, provoking a raft of uncomplimentary responses from his readers. Commenting on his own article, Clarke admitted that it had all been a fiendishly clever gambit on his part:
This is all very interesting stuff. I must now confess something of an ulterior motive in posting this. You would not believe — and looking at responses above you really wouldn’t — the number of Irish film-makers who believe that domestic critics are unfairly negative towards their work. I’m glad to see I was not hallucinating.
We’re all “begrudgers” you see. (Incidentally that is my least favourite word in Irish-English.)
So, do these critics have a point? Are we all just incredibly bitter about our own national film culture? In honour of Paddy’s Day, I thought I’d share my own opinions on the matter.
I could pretend to be fair and impartial, that the country of origin of a particular film has no bearing on whether I want to see it or not. This would be a lie, unfortunately – as appealing as it would sound to declare myself a truly objective and neutral observer. I don’t have an irrational hatred of Irish films, and I don’t run from them – but I find myself somewhat skeptical of them. It’s not that they’re typically bad (although there have been a more than reasonable amount of duds amongst our cinematic crop of the last few years), it’s just that they’re not necessarily good.
We have, for example, no Irish director working consistently on Irish soil who excites me. It would be unfair to compare them to American filmmakers, but perhaps British film makers are a more apt point of reference. I think of film makers working in England and I think of people as skilled as Mike Leigh, for example – a director who has never really had to work outside the UK. In contrast, if you think of any of the “name” Irish directors like Neil Jordan or John Boorman, they all have to balance domestic work with American movies. I’m as likely to see a Neil Jordan film starring Jodie Foster as Stephen Rea.
You might argue that we shouldn’t need “names” in order to keep a national film industry going. I think you’d be right to an extent, but that sort of pedigree and patronage is necessary to sustain a national film industry. Sure, you can point to any number of modern Irish directors like John Crowley (who went to England to film Is Anybody There?) and Leonard Abrahams (who has directed a total of four projects – including one short and a television show), but can you blame Irish filmgoers for not responding to them? I don’t think any of them will see their name attached to hype a project to the public – because we simply don’t have that firmly engrained a film culture.
More than that, I can’t remember ever anticipating an Irish film before the advertisements went up on buses. I flick through various websites, but I never see an Irish film that simply grabs me. Speaking of low-budget British films, I wanted to go see Shaun of the Dead from the moment I heard about it, and I’ve followed director Edgar Wright since then. At the moment, I’m frothing at the mouth while waiting for Attack of the Block, a low-budget British film from director Joe Cornish. All the reviews are fantastic.
You might argue that it’s not fair to compare Irish film to British – but I don’t see too much of a difference in scale. IMDb estimates the budget on Cornish’s sci-fi film as around £8,000,000. That isn’t too far out of whack with the budgets of homegrown films like Perrier’s Bounty ($6,600,000) and interMission ($5,000,000). And none of those films can generate the same amount of interest from me. I suspect, from talking to people, that I’m not alone in this.
So there is no anticipation or expectation of a given Irish release. It doesn’t help that most of the high profile releases that we are told to look forward to – Adam and Paul, for example, or Perrier’s Bounty – end up being fairly mediocre. I am not saying either film is bad or terrible, but I thought both were fairly average. However, you note a familiar trend – an Irish movie is talked up in the media, on radio and in the papers, and it just turns out to be… blah.
Of course, that makes it extra sweet when a movie is genuinely impressive. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – interMission was easily one of the best movies of the last decade. It’s a movie which can stand alongside any crime thriller or comedy from any country and still seem fresh, original and really good. I also really enjoyed When Brendan Met Trudy, it was a very solid romantic comedy.
However, I look internationally and I see so much Irish talent. Although it was filmed in Belgium and made with British money, I’d argue In Bruges might be the best Irish film ever made, just because so much of the talent of involved is Irish. Father Ted is easily one of the best situational comedies ever written and, again, it was produced by Irish talent using British money. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask why we can’t produce quality like that at home, and get that sort of return on our own investment. I think it’s a fair question to ask, and I hope it doesn’t make me a “begrudger.”
This is the part where I traditionally criticise RTE for only ever having produced one essential piece of television, but I’m actually quite happy with them. Hiring Aidan Gillen from The Wire to star in a well-made crime drama called Love/Hate certainly helped on that count – it’s the best home-produced drama I think I have ever seen. Now, if we could consistently produce shows like that instead of soap operas and reality television (Celebrity Farm was a uniquely Irish experience), we’d be set.
So, yes, I have criticisms. Yes, I do think that the media (perhaps more than individual critics) do inflate their opinions of perfectly grand Irish movies (which makes them seem disappointing). However, I do concede that we do good work. We should be proud. After all, how many nations can boast of adding a film as unique and impressive as In Bruges to world cinema, and popularising the word “feck”? We shouldn’t rest on those laurels, but they’re certainly impressive accomplishments.