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Guests of the Nation at the National Concert Hall (Review)

I was very kindly invited along by the wonderful folks at the National Concert Hall.

I have to admit, I’m always in awe of the effort that the National Concert Hall make in presenting classic film. It really is something to see a classic movie projected on to a big screen, as it was intended, but with a full orchestral accompaniment. They recently hosted a celebration of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse complete with RTÉ Concert Orchestra performing a live soundtrack. This time, it was arguably something even more special, a premier of the remastered version of Guests of the Nation with a brand new score by Niall Byrne. It’s clear that a lot of love went into the project, and there was something genuinely touching about the introduction from Irish actor Stephen Rea. It’s really a wonderful celebration of Irish cultural heritage, and proof that our cinema legacy stretches back a lot earlier than most would give it credit for.

Being entirely honest, the restored print and the live musical score would have been enough to justify the trip, but it’s to the credit of the Concert Hall and the Concert Orchestra that audiences were treated to two short introductory films, both from Andrew Legge. The first was his rather beautiful and whimsical black-and-white short The Unusual Inventions of Henry Cavendish, starring Hugh O’Conor, an actor who has graced the national stage quite often in recent years. Accompanied by a live piano score, there was something endearingly old-fashioned about it.

Though the short was filmed in 2005, it created a sense that it could have simply been hidden away in a projection booth somewhere for decades – if not for the occasional glimpses of recognisable faces like Frank Kelly in small roles. It was well-made and beautifully handled, with some wonderful touches – I especially liked the garish fake moustache on the villain, or the stop motion used to evoke early twentieth-century special effects. It’s a nice little film that’s well worth fifteen minutes of your time if you get the chance – Legge beautifully captures the sort of fancy-free feeling one might expect from those silent black-and-white films, with no sense of pretension or hefty weight around the film’s shoulders.

The night also provided the premier of Legge’s newest short, The Lactating Automaton, which hits on similar themes, shot beautifully in full and vibrant colour with great special effects and starring Dominic West as the inventor of the eponymous robot. To be honest, the film lacked a lot of the endearing sense of wonder and whimsy that the earlier short possessed. While still inventive and a technical accomplishment, the film struggled a bit with tone, as if struggling to decide whether it was a silly little film about a robot that produced milk from its breasts, or if it was something slightly more serious about humanity’s fear of the unknown. Or perhaps it merely tried to be too many things all at once.

On the other hand, the live soundtrack was quite something. Most of the Concert Orchestra provided a rather beautiful little score for the film, but they were also in the presence of three foley artists. These artists were charged with providing the film’s sound effects live, in all manner of inventive ways. Their work was so seamless and cleverly conceived that I had to look away from the screen to be sure they hadn’t flicked the soundtrack back on – it was inventive and brilliant, and something that really made the whole effort completely worthwhile.

After a short interval, the main attraction began. As a title card informs us, Guests of the Nation was produced by the Gate Theatre, and it looks absolutely marvellous. Sadly, as Stephen Rea’s introduction reminded us, this was Denis Johnston’s only film, but it demonstrates a clear aptitude for direction. A silent film, there’s even relatively little use of captions, and it’s to Johnston’s credit that the audience is never confused as to what exactly is unfolding. His style and technique is impressive, with clever use of montage to demonstrate the passage of time, and clever use of editing to visually suggest ideas to the audience – without needing to crowd the film with titlecards.

The short introduction from the Irish Film Institute cited Guests of the Nation as a major influence on director Neil Jordan, specifically on The Crying Game, and you can definitely see that here. The story is remarkably straight-forward: two IRA men are assigned the duty of guarding two captured British soldiers. Obviously a friendship and bond develops, but its to Johnston’s credit that it seems to develop so naturally and fluidly, with a minimum of exposition. The film is only forty-eight minutes long, and it flies by. There are even some impressive combat scenes that open the film, all handled with great care and skill. It holds up and is well worth a look if you can dig it out of the archives somewhere.

The movie comes complete with a new score from composer Niall Byrne, and it’s powerful stuff. It really has the orchestra firing on all cylinders, and helps establish a tone and mood that compliments Johnston’s visuals. There were times that the soundtrack did seem to evoke Tom Newton or James Howard just a tiny bit, as if affectionately referencing the transcendental scores to The Shawshank Redemption and even The Lord of the Rings. All in all, it was a great fit to the picture, and one that suited the material perfectly, giving it all a raw power, and helping Johnston’s film to feel fresh, yet classic, all at the same time.

The troupe will be taking Guests of the Nation to New York’s Lincoln Centre on the 22nd September. If you are in the area and at all interested in classic Irish cinema, or classic cinema in general, it’s well worth a look. The Irish Film Institute and the National Concert Hall deserve a great deal of praise for their work in promoting and sharing this work, and it is a very vital and worthy part of our nation’s shared cultural heritage.

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