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Non-Review Review: Citizen Lane

Citizen Lane is the latest documentary from director Thaddeus O’Sullivan, following the life and times of Hugh Lane.

Essentially combining documentary discussion of the central character with dramatic reconstructions of moments both key and incidental, Citizen Lane sketches an intriguing portrait of a fascinating figure. Lane is perhaps best known as an art collector and dealer, whose name adorns one of the more prestigious art galleries in the city centre. However, Lane is something of a mysterious figure to all but the most devoted of Irish cultural historians, lurking at the edge of the frame in stories about artists like Yeats or Synge.

Turn of the Century City.

Citizen Lane pulls back the curtain a little bit, illuminating both its subject and the world around him. Citizen Lane closes on an imagined image of Lane wandering through the gallery named in his honour, unassumingly travelling through a series of interlocked rooms, largely unnoticed by those in attendance. This image captures what Citizen Lane suggests is the most compelling facet of its central figure, the manner in which he seems to move through early twentieth-century Dublin intersecting with the grand sweep of Irish (and eventually global) history.

Citizen Lane is an enlightening and entertaining piece of work, and a compelling argument for how works of art (and even those who engage with art) seem to turn a mirror back on the culture around them.

Painting a picture of life in twentieth century Dublin.

As Citizen Lane outlines, Hugh Lane lived through a turbulent time in Irish history. The film positions him as a supporting player in a number of epic dramas, a character who finds himself in various directions by the tides of history. There are newspaper sketches from the archives, depicting Lane attending the scandalous premiere of The Playboy of the Western World. There are accounts of a battle of wills between Lane and industrialist (and newspaper baron) William Martin Murphy, just as the labour movement erupts. There is archive footage of the Lusitania.

There is something strangely alluring in all of these strange points of intersection. In some respects, they demonstrate that Ireland has always been a small country and that Dublin has always been a small town that masquerades as a city. The Irish political and cultural scene was so tight and so interconnected that so many remarkable people could casually brush up against one another simply by virtue of living in the country at the same point in time.

Plans are afoot.

Citizen Lane deftly balances this fascinating saga of the man threading his way through cultural and political revolution with a much more intimate drama focusing on Lane’s attempts to open a public gallery in Dublin. There is something appealing in this contrast between the epic sweep of history and the small noble gesture of a middle-class art dealer hoping to give something back to the common people. Even before the finer details come into focus, the audience understands the quixotic ambition of Lane’s plan to bring culture to a country that was sitting on a tinder box.

Even understanding that Lane was highly unlikely to fulfill his ambitions at that moment in time, under those pressures, there is something infectious in the character as presented. Lane boasts about his plans to “to revive the art of painting in Ireland”, to the point of patronising foreign artists in the hope of starting a fad. Warned that the art of painting never actually thrived in Ireland, Lane simply responds, “Never mind, I intend to revive it anyway.”

The art of the art deal…

Citizen Lane brings its central character to life through a variety of short scenes written by Mark O’Halloran and starring Tom Vaughan-Lawlor. These sequences cover a number of events in the life of Hugh Lane, moments both large and small; they both suggest and contextualise his character, allowing the character to live outside of the documentary interviews. As written by O’Halloran and as portrayed by Vaughan-Lawlor, the audience can appreciate his friends’ descriptions of a man that was both “hard to fathom, and difficult not to adore.”

Director Thaddeus O’Sullivan has a very fine balance to strike between the two extremes of the story being told, between the more personal tale of an art deal struggling to bring something of cultural value to the inhabitants of the city and the maelstrom unfurling around him. Although the film occasionally feels slightly too abstract, O’Sullivan and O’Halloran always manage to bring the central thread back into focus. An extended discussion of the premiere of The Playboy of the Western World is cannily contextualised as a cautionary tale for Lane’s ambitions.

Netting quite the talent.

There is a lot of material to cover, and Citizen Lane acquits itself very well, particularly in an extended coda that discusses the legacy of Hugh Lane, and what happened to his vision for a city of culture. Over the course of the film, Lane repeatedly stresses the importance of an artistic life to an urban environment, insisting that “any city which celebrates the practice can truly be considered great.” In his own way, against a backdrop of fermenting nationalist sentiment, Citizen Lane argues for the artist as patriot; not in the act of creation, but in the act of sharing.

Citizen Lane is an impressive and intriguing documentary that shines a light on an oft-overlooked figure from Irish history, a key figure who retains some of his mystery even as he plans to share his private collection with the world.

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