Writer and Director: Tom Sullivan
A film about the Irish famine may seem like an expectant choice for the opening night gala of the 10th Irish Film Festival returning to London after a two-year absence, but debut filmmaker Tom Sullivan, who transitions from actor to writer/director, looks at this bleak period of Irish history from a slightly different angle. Exploring the nomadic lifestyle causes by starvation and loss of land, Arracht – which translates as monster – is an intense and skilfully realised story of human reconnection.
Farmer Coleman Sharkey refuses to pay his rent as potato blight starts to affect his crops and facing his English landlord with some friends including the unpredictable Patsy, it proves a fateful night that two years on haunts Coleman. Now living alone in a hand-to-mouth existence, Coleman reaches his lowest point but meeting Kitty, a sick child who needs his help, a vital relationship develops.
Sullivan’s film begins as a relatively straightforward period drama that captures the family peasant lifestyle and contrast with the wealth English manor house, treading a familiar line between good working people and the evil landlord who makes matters worse. But quickly, Sullivan changes tack completely and Arracht blossoms when it becomes a more intimate survival story of a starving man in an inhospitable environment just trying to stay alive and wondering what is left to live for.
The landscape is a character on its own; the craggy rocks and boulder-strewn hills that Coleman tries to farm and, later, the arid cave dwelling accessible only by sea that represents the limits of his existence are both forbidding and beautiful, distilling the wider political and famine context into this personal trauma. The visual drama in these scenes comes through this clash of elements and the power of the natural forces against which humanity looks both small and defeated.
The film only suffers when it returns to the retribution plot in the final section that tries to tie up the ending with the earlier preamble. Why Patsy (Dara Devaney) continues to pursue this given the events of the night in the landlord’s home is a little confusing, at least not well enough explained on screen, so this section of the film feels too rushed, a need to force a conclusion rather than springing from character behaviour and purpose.
Dónall Ó Héalai lost weight to play Coleman, committing physically to the visual impression of starvation that Sullivan captures in detail. Coleman’s progress from happy family man to lonely and bereaved creates the story’s most powerful moments and Arracht is at its best and most poetic when Ó Héalai wordlessly conveys the reductive nature of his new life, tempered with a thin heartbeat that somehow compels him to go on living, supported by the arrival of resilient Kitty (Saise Ní Chuinn).
Arracht feels both quiet and substantial at the same time, Sullivan’s very personal depiction of the famine really connects the audience to this defining point in Irish history through these characters and the relationships they develop in an unforgiving personal and natural landscape.
Arracht was screened as part of the Irish Film Festival running from 17 – 21 November.