Country (2000)

D: Kevin Liddy
S: Dean Prichard, Des Cave

Well directed but overly familiar Irish film dealing with themes of loss, redemption, and the effect of the (hidden/repressed) past on the present. Famed short film director Kevin Liddy makes his feature debut as both writer and director here, and the film does display a degree of technique which makes it probably the best of its type since December Bride. Yet audiences will most likely be overcome with a feeling of deja vu from the opening scenes, because despite some moments which are reminiscent of Days of Heaven, this is an old, old story told more or less in the old old way. The plot concerns the slow decay of a motherless rural Irish family in the early 1970s which seems to be halted by the arrival of their estranged aunt. Though her presence momentarily brings light to the eyes both of the ex-alcoholic father and the younger son (Dean Prichard), many sub-plots are afoot which threaten to bring the shadows of the past into sharp focus, not least of all the doomed romance of the elder son, whose girlfriend comes from a family who has always hated his.... you know the drill.

To be fair, Liddy's script is quite adult. It is sparing in its use of dialogue and this gives him greater freedom as a director to use images to tell the story than is usual in contemporary Irish film. He lets his camera carry the weight of the drama with careful composition and juxtaposition which brings out the various conflicts and crises and establishes the links between them. It doesn't condescend to its audience and is built around small revealing moments rather than reams of expositional, stage-bound exchanges between characters. Unfortunately the story is still a familiar one, and though the photography is sometimes breathtaking, it takes only one long, slow crane shot of the barley fields to make all the points that can be made about the relationship between these characters and their land and one shot of the boy's red kite flying free against the clear blue sky to clue us in to its symbolism. Similarly the change of lighting and set decoration in the house to indicate psychological and emotional change is all very well done, but it doesn't really add much richness on a deeper level because nothing is being said that was not obvious from the outset.

As the story wends its way towards the inevitable climactic showdown between groups of secondary characters (including an extended family of travellers), the predictable descent into misery is not so much tragic as dull. Despite Niall Byrne's soughing string-based score, there isn't a lot of emotional heft because it simply cannot grip you unless you've really never seen anything like it before, and if you're an Irish film viewer, you have. A slightly tacked-on coda suggests perhaps that this has all been a learning experience for the youngster, but if so, then his learning experience has been that life is full of misery and pain and the best you can hope for is that if you keep yourself to yourself that your pain will only destroy your own soul. Do we need to hear this again? The final frozen image of the boy may or may not be a cinematic reference to The 400 Blows, but this is not a comparable achievement as a portrait of society, youth, or as a work of cinematic storytelling.

In a world of How to Cheat in the Leaving Certificate, Flick, The Butcher Boy, and Nora, it may be time to lay this particular type of story to rest. It is not that the themes are not valid, nor that it fails to put across a message which is arguably more important than ever in the era of the Celtic Tiger. It is not that Country is a bad film; far from it: it is a beautifully crafted movie, it has something to say, and it says this clearly. But it adds nothing to the viewing menu of contemporary Irish cinema and is therefore just not of enough interest to be worth recommending unless you have a particular predisposition to its point of view. As a debut feature from an Irish director it is worth a look, but it is not likely to inspire the next generation.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2000.