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Haywire Geography: Soderbergh’s Dublin…

It’s rare to see Ireland in a big American film. Of course, I mean the real Ireland, as opposed the “begosh and begorrah” nonsense that we’re treated to in crap like Leap Year, where we’re all a bunch of hicks with silly accents and farmer’s caps. While Ireland has made itself an attractive filming location for films like Braveheart or television shows like The Tudors, I am more referring to movies sit in and around our country in the present day. So not only was it a joy to see Steven Soderbergh set his espionage thriller Haywire in the city where I live and work, it was even better to see it so perfectly released and efficiently captured.

Going back the Hueston...

I live and work in Dublin, and I have a lot of love for the city, but I’ll be to concede that it’s hardly a glamorous international location. It’s beauty lies in its history and its culture, more than in the bricks or the architecture. Trying to capture Dublin’s spirit on film is difficult, because it doesn’t look as inherently eye-catching as Paris or Barcelona or Madrid or Berlin or even London, let alone American cities like New York or Boston or Chicago or Los Angeles. I say that with the utmost affection, because it’s the truth. Dublin is never going to serve as the location of the next Bond film, which I suppose was precisely Soderbergh’s point.

At best, some of a stylish thriller might be shot in the stylish surroundings of the country, like the gala party that Soderbergh’s secret agent attends at the real Russborough House in County Wicklow. Indeed, that’s probably what most people imagine modern Ireland to be like, isolated and stylish, elegant and remote. However, as beautiful as Soderbergh makes rural Ireland look, he does a much better job with its capital city.

Hitting the roof...

It’s strange to point at the screen and to instantly recognise the location, visible at an odd angle and out of focus behind the characters. Of course, I’ve been abraod and I can recognise many of the locations shoots in the popular cities, but it’s strange to see somewhere you pass every day captured on film, and capture as it looks every day. I wonder if this might be how New Yorkers view so many of the films set around the city? Or is the conventional portrayal of New York on film a romanticised version of the city. I think Soderbergh works so well in Dublin because he doesn’t romanticise it.

More than that, though, the director’s geography made sense. It’s strange to watch a movie to be so innately aware of the space in which the characters are operating, at least from my own perspective. During Mallory’s escape from the Shelbourne Hotel on St. Stephen’s Green, following a late night date that went terribly wrong, her path through the city makes a great deal of sense. She nips quickly on to Dawson Street, disappearing into a parking garage and emerges from a Burger King on Grafton Street, where it makes sense. I could even see the HMV where I used to buy my DVDs. Her vantage point is in the right place – there’s no visual trickery at foot. She doesn’t stride across half the city in a quick cut – Soderbergh is aware of the locations he’s using, and part of me felt an admittedly geeky thrill watching him make use of the city’s geography.

Mallory's escape from the Shelbourne Hotel (click to enlarge)

More impressive, arguably, is the attention that Soderbergh pays to a later rooftop escape. While I’ve obviously never gone clambering around the roofs near O’Connell Street, his backgrounds make sense – buildings and landmarks are always where they’re supposed to be. According to Irish location manager Peter Conway, there was a lot of set-up involved:

For the rooftop chase we planned a logical route that Mallory would take for her escape, and then we had to get permission from each individual building owner. This took a few months to work out as there was a major bank and a major building society involved.

That’s a lot of work for a short scene, but I like it. More than that, though, it’s the smaller touches of the film that ring true. It’s the stacked chairs moved carelessly aside in both Wynn’s Hotel and in Russborough House, something that I very rarely notice in films like this – the stacked plastic chairs shoved under the stairs of an old Palladian house. Or even the last-minute switch of a small scene from Dublin Airport to Hueston Station.

In fact, virtually the only aspect of Soderbergh’s Dublin that doesn’t run true is his use of the Garda’s Emergency Response Unit. sweeping through Abbey Street like some sort of SWAT team. It’s something forgivable, filling the plot function of a generic SWAT team, but it seems highly unlikely that any international spy could draw such a rapid and directly armed response from the nation’s police force, given how strong our national attitude towards guns might be.

The site of Mallory's rooftop rumble (click to enlarge)

Far more effective, sadly, in capturing a sense of place, is Mallory’s method of evading the stand-in SWAT team. Throwing on a hoody and emerging from one of the alleys off Abbey Street posing as a junkie disturbed by the racket, it’s a wonderfully frank illustration of life in that part of town. The script was reportedly written especially to be filmed in Dublin, and that’s a moment which really captures the area of the city, sadly enough.

Soderbergh’s Dublin feels remarkably real, at least measured against any of the other fleeting glimpses we’ve seen in international films, and it felt almost surreal to see it. I think that this aspect of Soderbergh’s film is perhaps what I’ll remember most fondly.

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8 Responses

  1. He definitely did his homework. I’ve was in both Dublin (long weekend) and Barcelona (10 days) last year, so many spots and locations that jumped out, yet aren’t the obvious ‘touristy’ sites.

    Barcelona in particular was very tight, filmed in one small corner of the old town/. As you say with Dublin, captures the places perfectly, with no tinseltown shine.

    • I figured the same was true of Barcelona, but I haven’t been long enough to be sure. I just really liked the attention to detail.

  2. Really enjoyed reading your intimate and personal impression of a film that I am excited about, from an usual and unusually fascinating angle. I’m a northerner as you know, and rarely make trips down to the free state but hearing you wax lyrical about Soderbergh’s careful and considered treatment of our nation’s Capital is quite reassuring and delightfully refreshing. Thanks for this insight Darren!

    • I hope you enjoy it. I think the film had serious flaws, but there are moments that work really well. It’s kinda like Contagion – there are great moments, but the film has difficulty pulling them together. Anyway, I’ll try not to spoil it or to prejudice you. Let me know what you think.

  3. Glad to hear one of my favorite scenes was actually authentic. Thanks for mapping it all out for us foreigners.

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