Writer: Joe Murtagh
Director: Nick Rowland
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
It has been a really interesting Festival for Irish film with several dotted throughout the various themed areas including Rialto in the Journey strand and three in prize-nominated categories with Rose Meets Julie and The Other Lamb in the Official Competition and now Joe Murtagh’s excellent Calm with Horses in The First Feature Competition. This superb debut adapted from Colin Barrett’s novella is a gripping examination of family obligation and violence.
The Devers family run their small rural town and you cross them at your peril. When a family friend abuses a 13-year old after a Devers party, former boxer Douglas (known as “Arm”) and his brother Dympna go round to teach him a lesson. But when senior members decide that a beating is insufficient, Douglas is told to finish the job, but struggling to reconcile his hired-hand status with the good man he wants to be for his 5-year old son, Douglas sets in motion a train of events that only lead to further retribution.
This may be Rowland’s first film, but he has a masterly control over his twin narrative threads, giving equal dramatic weight to the quite separate demands on Douglas to support the family business as well as trying to set an example for his son. This undercurrent of violence in small communities is a frequent feature of Irish filmmaking and Rowland adds to the genre with an almost claustrophobic management of the unfolding tension, ensuring the gritty and brutal violence is shocking as well as inescapable.
The forbidding tone of much of the film is beautifully contrasted with sparing shots of the rugged landscape as cars speed past rocky mountains and craggy cliffs – a reflection of the uncontrollable nature of the events Douglas sets in motion that build to an inevitable but nonetheless sad conclusion as the character is forced to accept that he cannot so easily walk away from the world he has chosen and tough choices must be made to protect his loved ones.
Building on his fine turn in Lady Macbeth, Cosmo Jarvis is excellent as the family’s hired henchmen with a sensitive side, able to turn-on the brutality when needed but feeling it eat away at his heart. Jarvis navigates Douglas’ conflicted emotions well, particularly the frustration he feels with himself when he cannot be the man or the father he wants to be, but also in suggesting the cyclical pressure of gang culture where you obey or become their next target.
Barry Keoghan is also building a fine catalogue of performances including the brilliantly murky The Killing of a Sacred Deer which received a Festival Gala screening two years ago. Here as Dympna he’s an interesting complement to Douglas, still young enough to choose differently but less troubled by his brother’s scruples. Ned Dennehy as Uncle Paudi and David Wimot as Hector as the Devers senior statesmen well create the brutal hereditary context in which loyalty becomes more important than anything.
Calm with Horses really is an extraordinary debut and while the final 10-minutes become a little sentimental, the way in which violence begets violence is so well created by Rowland that the effect of this film will last far beyond the end credits. With executive producer Michael Fassbender behind the project, this is one Irish film and director with a bright future before them.
The BFI London Film Festival runs from 2 October to 13 October