Writer: Mark O’Halloran
Director: Peter Mackie Burns
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
The subject of male mental health is slowly making its way into mainstream cinema but with the prevalence of superheroes, spies and gangsters, male role models still disproportionately emphasise strength, heroism and endurance. Peter Mackie Burns’ new film Rialto is refreshingly different, placing an ordinary character experiencing a combination of grief, loneliness and degrees of repressed emotion at the heart of a sensitive study of everyday suburban reality for ordinary men.
Colm works in an administrative job at Dublin docks and is dealing with the recent death of his father. Pulled in multiple directions by his wife, grown-up children and colleagues, Colm falls for prostitute Jay whose own relationship with his girlfriend and daughter is fractious. A sudden change in circumstances precipitates a breakdown and unable to take any more Colm looks to Jay for escape.
There are many things to enjoy on Mackie Burns’ fascinating film, particularly the slow burn building of pressure on the fragile Colm as the secrets he conceals are carefully managed to become an unbearable burden. What initially seems to be a fairly standard story of a middle-aged man cheating and exploring latent homosexuality, instead becomes something much more touching in Mark O’Halloran’s screenplay adapted from his own play as Colm’s life and control start to unravel.
There is a theatricality to the intense duologues between Colm and Jay, exploring an imbalanced connection between the two men, but one that means more to the older man as life overwhelms him. Mackie Burns largely shrugs off the staginess of the piece and uses intense close-up to create tension, revelling in the interior complexity of his characters as they try to make sense of the fluctuating emotional landscape of the film, while Valentin Hadjadj’s score creates a Vertigo-like feel of confusion and disconnection as Colm descends into a quiet despair.
Yet, while Jay is given power in the relationship not only through dominance in the single sex scene but also in his control of every conversation with Colm – his transactional disinterestedness is a stark contrast to his client’s emotional investment – there is an unresolved and troubling element to the film which can make for uncomfortable viewing. Mackie-Burns strives hard to make the viewer sympathise with Colm, even when his actions upset his family, but the exploitation of the younger man is hard to reconcile, forced to sell himself to pay his way. He may be bolshie but if the character were female, Colm’s behaviour would be less explicable.
Tom Vaughan-Lawlor is superb as Colm, slowly inverting and unable to find a way out of his overwhelming depression. The closeness of the camera reveals all the pain, fear and desperation that Vaughan-Lawlor manifests and as a portrait of declining mental health it is very impressive. Some aspects of the performance are also reminiscent of Michael Fassbender’s character in Shame, revealing compulsive behaviour that the character can barely recognise let alone control, an impulse that drives him to Jay.
Tom Glynn-Carney is all disdainful attitude as Jay, but Monica Dolan feels wasted as Colm’s wife, her only purpose to reflect her husband’s distress rather than signify any of her own. Rialto’s central premise is conflicting, but it is a valuable and honest depiction of male mental health in which Vaughan-Lawlor is superb.
The BFI London Festival runs from 2 October to 13 October