Posts Tagged ‘Peter Mullan’

I very nearly didn’t go to see Paddy Considine’s new film. This is not out of any distaste for the man himself – Considine is part of that tradition of unshakably reliable actors who seem, quite simply, utterly incapable of not giving a brilliant performance, with an enviable track record in both independent and mainstream film. Anything written and directed by him is, you would rightly think, well-worth looking at. The issue is simply that the film is called Tyrannosaur.

I love dinosaurs. I love films. It therefore goes without saying that I love dinosaur films, and Tyrannosaur is a brilliant name for a dinosaur film. Imagine the bone-crunching, flesh-tearing, lawyer-gobbling possibilities (and the equal possibilities for more taxonomically exotic follow-up projects like Gorgosaur, Tarbosaur, or Albertosaur). But no. There are no theropod predators, or indeed dinosaurs of any kind, in Considine’s movie, and thus a great movie title looks very much like it’s been squandered quite unnecessarily. (Considine has said he considered changing the name of the film simply to avoid it being taken for something following in the wake of Jurassic Park.) Nevertheless I decided this was possibly a slightly petty reason to boycott a film boasting an impressive array of talent and provisionally forgave him.    

Peter Mullan, an actor whose name is unlikely ever to appear in close proximity to the words ‘reassuring screen presence’, plays Joseph, a man on the fringes of society, who seems capable of expressing himself solely through acts of violence, either physical or verbal. He exists in a permanent state of inarticulate rage, for reasons that are not initially clear. But Joseph seems aware that he is on the edge and almost appears to be groping for a way out.

After one of his outbursts he takes refuge in a charity shop run by Hannah (Olivia Colman), an apparently comfortable, middle class woman from an affluent estate. A devout Christian, she senses Joseph’s problems almost at once and tries to help him as best she can. He responds, of course, by savagely ridiculing her and her faith. But an odd bond has been forged between the two which will prove crucial in the days to come.

For Hannah is as troubled as Joseph, in her own way – her husband (Eddie Marsan) is a manipulative, possessive sadist who mistreats her horribly and is slowly driving her towards alcoholism, and she seems unable to stand up to him or assert herself in any way. and for the rest of the film the three characters slowly orbit around one another, united by their various frailties, miseries and need for help.

Happy happy joy time? I think not (or as the director recently observed, ‘this isn’t the kind of project where you want method actors’). As you can probably tell, this is a film which sits in the grand tradition of low-budget British social miserabilism, and while parts of it are almost unwatchably brutal and grim, that doesn’t stop it being a very accomplished film and far from merely an exercise in depressing the audience.

On the other hand, this isn’t the kind of film which sets out to uplift or necessarily even entertain – but it does offer an acutely observed and very honest depiction of human beings in extreme situations. As such it stands or falls by the performances of the actors, and everyone here is superb. Mullan is initially absolutely terrifying (as I commented at the time, Mullan even managed to be properly scary in one of the generally anodyne Harry Potter movies) before full depth of his character becomes apparent, at which point he becomes a deeply affecting if not entirely sympathetic figure. Colman is also excellent – one of the strengths of her performance, and indeed the film, is how non-judgmental it is – is her faith the crutch and solace it seems to be? Or does it simply stop her from fighting back against her persecutors, and is thus ultimately the source of all her troubles? As I said, the film refuses to offer easy answers. In the same vein, it doesn’t provide the audience with the moments of expected catharsis, either, or any kind of quick emotional pay-off.

Much as I appreciated Tyrannosaur and found it an utterly engrossing and moving film, I would be lying if I said I wanted to see a film of this kind appearing in my local cinema every week – it’s too dark and strong a flavour to be a regular part of my diet. But it would be an enormous loss if films like this were never made at all (just as it would be a loss if Paddy Considine stopped acting altogether and concentrated on his directorial career). Hopefully a solution can be found where a properly mixed diet of movies can be assured, and Considine can continue with both tracks of his career – because on this evidence, his talent as a director is every bit as impressive as that as an actor.

(But next time, Paddy, would it kill you to include one little deinonychus? Go on, just for me.)

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published July 31st 2003: 

For me, it’s always nice to have an experience that’s genuinely novel – whether that be trying a new drink, making a new friend, or remembering my mother’s birthday. Time and money constraints, amongst others, mean that the scope for such activities inevitably shrinks with the passage of time. And so it was nice to be able to do something new recently, in the form of committing a mortal or venial sin (I’m not sure which, it’s not really my native theology) by going to see Peter Mullan’s The Magdalene Sisters.

Set in the 1960s and based on true events, this is the story of three young Irish girls (Anne-Marie Duff, Nora-Jane Noone, and Dorothy Duffy) of very different backgrounds and characters – one has just been raped, another has given birth to an illegitimate baby, while the third is simply a bit flirtatious. For these perceived offences, the girls are all packed off to what’s essentially a high-security laundry, run by nuns. It’s a prison for those the Catholic Church disapproves of, with eventual release entirely in the gift of the alarming Sister Bridget (Geraldine McEwan)…

While there is a bit of plot scattered about, particularly at either end, The Magdalene Sisters is mainly a fairly episodic film, cataloguing the horrors the girls encounter during their captivity: sadism, hypocrisy, brutality, humiliation, corruption, and degradation. So, not a comedy then. It’s actually enormously to the credit of former actor Mullan (whose best-known role, ironically enough, was probably playing Mother Superior in Trainspotting) that the film remains as watchable as it does, given that it’s so unrelentingly grim and depressing. He does a very good job both with camera and script, creating a film with a texture both bleak and rich, and he’s not afraid to let images and music, rather than dialogue, tell his story. The film is arguably a little overlong at two hours, though. The main performances are uniformly excellent – McEwan, in an extremely showy part, has attracted most of the attention but the three leads are arguably equally good.

This is another entry into that popular genre of films and books whose main raison d’etre is to stick the boot to the Catholic Church. Not a single member of the Church, from the most junior nun to a high-ranking bishop, is presented in a remotely positive or sympathetic light. Before we see Sister Bridget’s face, we are shown her hands as she gleefully counts the money her laundry has made, all the while spouting pious aphorisms. The film doesn’t spare the Church’s congregation from its ire, either: one key sequence has a disturbed young inmate screaming ‘You are not a man of God! You are not a man of God!’ at an abusive priest over and over and over again, while around her the local community look on in a silence that’s born more of embarrassment than shock or outrage.

In a way the sheer relentlessness and obvious anger of the film, the fact that it so clearly has an axe to grind, begins to count against it. If this was an entirely fictional story it would be justly criticised for depicting so many characters as morally worthless and utterly without a redeeming feature – and I do find it hard to believe the Magdalene Sisters were quite as evil as Mullan clearly thinks they were.

And the status of the film as a semi-fictional story does cause problems, because – so far as I can make out – Mullan isn’t playing entirely fair here. It’s my understanding that while the Magdalene laundries were (obviously) real, and that terrible abuses happened there, all the characters in this film are fictitious. Mullan does not make this clear – indeed, he arguably deliberately clouds this issue by including ‘what happened next’ mini-biographies for all his main characters at the conclusion, something bound to make many viewers believe they are real people. Mullan is clearly seeking to expose the truth about the laundries and what went on there – but by conflating truth and fiction in this way he surely harms his own case. If he’s passing his characters off as real when they’re fictional, why should we believe in any of the other events depicted in this film?

But for all its historical ambiguities, its manipulativeness and its moral simplicity, The Magdalene Sisters remains a powerful and well-made film, filled with noteworthy performances and powered by a deeply committed (if occasionally over excitable) script. Not one to settle down in front of with a carton of popcorn and a giant-sized soft drink, but worth looking out for anyway.

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