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Now that Colm Bairéad’s The Quiet Girl has been nominated for the Academy Award for Best International Feature Film, there is renewed interest in Irish cinema. The gentle, good-natured drama is a strong representation of the country’s sensibilities: It opts for low-key stories, often focused on family life, that consider the myriad small ways people can fail or be heroes for one another. Even if The Quiet Girl does not win the Oscar, the slate at the 2023 Capital Irish Film Festival, running March 2 through 5, shrewdly double down on the themes Bairéad’s project explores. Most of the featured films—some in Irish, but many in English—focus on the struggles of those in small towns. Many of the heroes are shaped by their homes and families, usually in ways they cannot fully comprehend. Here are a handful of short reviews from the 2023 festival’s best offerings—The Quiet Girl opens this year’s fest, but is already sold out—with recommendations to get you even more primed for Ireland’s larger spot on the world cinema stage.
The Ghost of Richard Harris
In a quote that’s probably misattributed or taken out of context, Sigmund Freud allegedly once quipped that the Irish are the only people impervious to psychoanalysis. The documentary The Ghost of Richard Harris is a traditional biography of the famous actor and musician, but it’s also an attempt to reckon with Freud’s observation. What was really driving Harris, a beloved actor who also developed a reputation as a drunk and a scoundrel? Some answers arrive, although they prove immaterial to this portrait of a life well lived.
Nowadays, Harris is perhaps best known for being the first person to portray Dumbledore in the first two Harry Potter films. He played the beloved wizard until his death in 2002, but prior to all that, he had a decades-spanning career with dizzying highs and lows. Director Adrian Sibley gets key biographical detail through Harris’ three sons, the actor Jared Harris most recognizable among them, but also friends and other actors who worked with him over the years. Many speak about Harris fondly, while others are more careful to note his ferocious side, which coincides with his love of booze and bad behavior.
In archival footage and excerpts from diaries, Harris resists deeper analysis. Quite simply, he drank like a fish and got into fights because he loved doing both—it seems fighting and drinking helped him feel more alive, right down to the headache and bruises he woke up with the following mornings. But Sibley does not stop at Harris’ drunken brawls, instead the director burrows deeper into Harris’ treasure trove of journals and poetry. Ultimately, the documentary suggests events in Harris’ early life were formative in a way the actor would never fully acknowledge.
Either way, The Ghost of Richard Harris is a lively, thoughtful examination of the actor, the kind that will appeal to longtime fans and neophytes alike. No matter how familiar you might be with his work, this documentary practically demands you add some of his forgotten films to your watch list, or at least put the tune “MacArthur Park” back into regular rotation.
The Ghost of Richard Harris screens at 2:30 p.m. on March 3. Buy tickets here.
To capture small-town life, a film must consider all the frustration and comfort it can provide. Everyone knows everyone else, to the point where “news travels fast” among the residents. There’s a reassurance in this, but one insidious problem with such provincialism is the way in which it stymies growth. There is a deep rooted sense you cannot change because everyone around you has already made up their minds about who you are.
That is the dilemma facing the characters in Ballywalter, a drama that uses a wicked humor to buoy its unhappy characters. Director Prasanna Puwanarajah and writer Stacey Gregg mostly follow Eileen (Seána Kerslake), a former university student who sleepwalks through her 20s as a cab driver with a drinking problem. One evening she picks up Shane (Patrick Kielty), a sad sack trying to restart his life as a stand-up comedian. In one of the film’s many ironies, Shane is too stiff to be all that funny, while Eileen can rattle off one pithy line after another without much thought.
Through this unlikely pair, who develop a friendship based on shared depression, the filmmakers explore the other people in the town. Eileen lives with a sister who barely tolerates her self-destructive streak—for Eileen, getting drunk is a kind of annihilation—while Shane finds solace among fellow weirdos who turn to comedy as a means to escape extreme shyness. There are not many answers in the film (to its credit), since any kind of elegant solution would rob it of its gentle realism. Instead, Ballywalter gets you to empathize with some ordinary, likable people who are both so guarded that a path forward nearly eludes them.
Ballywalter screens at 4:45 p.m. on March 3. Buy tickets here.
More than any other film in this year’s lineup, Aisha may attract the most attention and not just because of its recognizable lead actors. It is also the angriest film at the festival. Director Frank Berry is unflinching in his depiction of a cold bureaucracy, one whose indifference to suffering hurts more people than its creators could expect.
Fresh off becoming the new Black Panther in Wakanda Forever, Letitia Wright stars as Aisha, an immigrant from Nigeria who seeks asylum in Ireland. She works as a hairdresser and tries to mind her own business, but she finds herself at the mercy of functionaries who want to abuse what little power they have. Two unexpected things happen before an important hearing that will determine whether Aisha can stay in Ireland permanently: she strikes up a friendship with Conor (Josh O’Connor), a security guard who works at the facility where she lives. She is also put through a bureaucratic ringer, one that ostensibly robs her of what little independence she has.
Aisha begins with a title card explaining that the film draws on the real experience of asylum seekers, which proves to be crucial since what befalls the title character can be devastating and cruel. She soon learns she cannot work and the nature of the hearing is basically set up so that she will probably fail. The story of her past only complicates matters: Her remaining family, wanted in Nigeria by local gangsters, was forced into hiding. Wright is a sensitive actor, naturally gifted at downplaying her rage, and when we learn her complete story, it is a wonder she maintains the amount of patience she does.
The friendship between Aisha and Conor is what ultimately saves the film from becoming too miserable. Berry handles the relationship with tact: Conor falls in love with her, and has the wisdom to approach her directly, not forcefully. To her, he must represent the promise of the West, complete with possibilities and ignorance of her past. Aisha ends on an ambiguous note, a close-up of Wright that grows more mysterious the more you think about it. Maybe the lack of resolution is frustrating, which is exactly the point. Dwelling on the future is a luxury she cannot afford.
Aisha screens at 3:05 p.m. on March 4. Buy tickets here.
In The Sparrow, a tough drama from Michael Kinirons, it is immediately clear that Kevin (Ollie West) is going to have a hard time. He’s the kind of “indoor kid” who paints his fingernails, much to the chagrin of his father (David O’Hara), who served in the military. Within minutes, Kinirons depicts a household where Kevin is the victim of physical and emotional abuse.
At first, there is a sense that The Sparrow will follow Kevin growing more confident and determined to stick up for himself. But then Kinirons changes the film’s arc with a sudden, tragic accident. It sends Kevin reeling and he feels he cannot tell a soul. The film’s real subject is guilt, not just Kevin’s, but a father who knows his style of parenting fails a child he cannot fully understand.
O’Hara is the real highlight of the film. In a performance that grows more complex as you watch, he adds notes of regret and pain. Kinirons does not let the character of the hook—he is a brute and an abuser—though the director has the wisdom and curiosity to see how those are symptoms of deeper faults. What makes The Sparrow challenging, even provocative, is the effect all this has on Kevin, who starts as a guarded victim and goes through a silent journey of guilt and self-doubt.
All this culminates in a final scene that veers between madness, rage, and, finally, something close to reconciliation. Such a conclusion is a dramatic, almost theatrical contrast to the low-key tension that defines most of The Sparrow, and yet the strength of the performances ensures that the final minutes, where father and son fight for some mutual understanding, earns its denouement.
The Sparrow screens at 4:30 p.m. on March 5. Buy tickets here.
Like Ballywalter, the drama Lakelands considers the perils of small-town life. But Robert Higgins and Patrick McGivney, who wrote and directed the film together, are less interested in broken characters who yearn for escape. Instead, they imagine a man whose life takes a surprising turn. The film’s tension comes from whether he can get over his own youthful arrogance to accept that change.
Éanna Hardwicke plays Cian, a cattle farmer who finds fulfillment in a competitive Gaelic Football League. After practice one evening, he gets into a bar fight with some guys who beat him mercilessly. After Cian swallows his pride, he thinks he can swing back into athletics. But the injuries leave long-lasting effects.
In terms of plot, Lakelands has a lot in common with Sound of Metal, another film about a young man who learns he can no longer pursue his greatest passion. Whereas Sound of Metal is a more visceral film, considering a musician’s hearing loss with stark brutality, Higgins and McGivney opt for a more low-key approach. The stakes are relatively low, something that works in the film’s favor. There is a persistent sense of realism, and Hardwicke gives what could be a star-making performance. Alternately vulnerable and defiant, his acting is not unlike a young Richard Harris.
Another thing that gives Lakelands a major assist is Danielle Galligan, who plays a young woman named Grace. She and Cian share a romantic history, but now she returns from London to take care of her ailing father. The discussions between the two leads have genuine romantic tension, while also serving as a treatise on the virtues of escaping home. Their subplot dovetails nicely with Cian’s coming of age, leading to bittersweet moments that offer the faintest hint that a diverted path might lead to new opportunities.
Lakelands screens at 7 p.m. on March 5. Buy tickets here.
The 2023 Capital Irish Film Festival, presented by Solas Nua, opens at 7 p.m. on March 2 and runs through March 5 at AFI Silver Theatre. solasnua.org. $11–$13 per film, $130 for full festival passes.