Lie of the Land -The Irish Film Festival, London 2023

Reviewer: David Cunningham

Writer: Tara Hegarty

Director: John Carlin

The phrase Lie of the Land is generally used to mean the characteristics of physical area or an indication of a state of affairs. In John Carlin’s film the landscape is far from appealing and the state of affairs is grim- farmers finding it increasingly hard to make a living. There is also an additional meaning – deception- as a couple fall prey to a merciless conman.

Although set in Ballymena in the heart of the Irish countryside the scenery in the film is far from picturesque. The movie opens before dawn breaks so the lighting is sullen making the area look drab and unappealing. This depressing setting suits the mood of the Wards -Mathew (Nigel O’Neill) and Kath (Ali White) as financial worries compel the sale of their entire livestock.

Knowing they are unlikely to ever be able to pay their debts the Wards are desperate, but smooth-talking Gabriel Shepherd (Barry John Kinsella) offers an unusual if illegal solution. For a fee he is willing to create new identifies for the couple in a country where they can never be traced. As is often the case if something sounds too good to be true it is usually false and when Shepherd insists on taking the Ward’s funds but coming back for them at a later date, the couple smell a rat and call off the deal. Shepherd, however, will not take ‘no’ for an answer and puts the couple under siege in their own home until payment is made.

The modest scale of the film limits the use of the usual techniques to generate suspense. With just four characters the tried-and-true method of bumping off minor characters cannot be employed. Instead, a war of attrition develops with the characters being wounded but surviving. The poor neighbour of the Wards is bludgeoned unconscious and stabbed but keeps going.

Instead, suspense arises from the couple trying to overcome the defeatist attitude they have developed over the years and compel themselves to fight back. Really, as the Wards have led a life involving hard physical labour, they ought to be able to tackle Shepherd who probably has never done any manual work, but their timidity and age-related fragility are obstacles.

Author Tara Hegarty brings a degree of social comment to the film. As well as the desperate financial situation of farmers such as the Wards the slimy villain remarks it was a pity in the past there was no-one like him to help ‘shepherd’ girls who became pregnant out of wedlock to a safe place. Moral ambiguity is apparent with Kath being willing to commit fraud but not to accept charity from neighbours.

Director John Carlin exploits traditional methods to build suspense. The film is shot in gloomy half-light and Shepherd arrogantly searches a room not realising his prey is framed in the doorway behind him.

A dark humour grows as the film progresses. Shepherd claims to be a representative of the bank holding the mortgage on the farm and it is grimly acknowledged his behaviour is so ruthless that may be the case. Shepherd desperately trying to wash off a caustic solution leads to the laconic observation the tap on the sink must be jiggled before it functions. The Wards acknowledge the extent to which their age limits their ability to fight back, having weapons but eyesight so poor they cannot be confident of hitting a target and complaining about the size of the field through which they must run.

More significantly there is a rueful sense of regret in the film. The absence of children to help run and take over the farm is felt keenly. Mathew Ward explains his acceptance of the dodgy deal from Shepherd was not simply to run from debts but a genuine wish to start afresh after his current life turned out so disappointing.

Budget limitations may keep Lie of the Land from being a completely satisfying thriller, but the eccentric approach makes it well worth a watch.

Lie of the Land is screening at the Iris Film Festival, London 2023.

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