Mapmaker (2002)

D: Johnny Gogan
S: Brian F. O'Byrne, Susan Lynch

Well-intentioned but heavy-handed low-budget political thriller set in the border counties of Northern Ireland. Cartographer Brian F. O'Byrne finds himself in the midst of all manner of troubles when he accepts a contract to draw up a new map for the district committee of a border town. As he researches the places and placenames which make up the potted and divided history of the area, he uncovers literal skeletons in the proverbial closet and invokes the ire of local paramilitaries. His only ally seems to be local boy Oisín Kearney, who first observes him and then becomes involved in his search for hidden truths. Generically inevitable romantic complications also eventually arise with Susan Lynch (Nora), whose husband, Brendan Coyle, may be involved in shady doings himself.

There is much talk of boundaries and borders in director Johnny Gogan's script, most of it delivered with a completely straight face. Treading boldly into thematic material treated so memorably on stage by Brian Friel's Translations, the film explores the schisms between geographical and human boundaries. It tries to come to terms with ideas of how the physical landscape is imbued with meaning by the perceptions of those who live on it, and how the history of the land is made in the process of human habitation. The audience is reminded constantly that the hills, streams, and fields existed long before we did, but that human beings will nonetheless fight for every inch of it to the point of killing one another if they attach particular significance to their right to live there and to name it according to their social, cultural, and political preference.

This ambitious thematic nexus underlies a fairly banal plot. It all starts harmlessly enough with some sectarian joking and wry smiles in local bars. The film makes some attempt to pretend that it is not going to turn into a thriller, nonchalantly strolling through The Man who Went Up a Hill but Came Down a Mountain territory and whistling tunelessly to itself about bogstandard concerns with the relationship between man and landscape which offers the pleasures of another familiar Irish-set type of film. It doesn't take very long for the portents to start though, and when the gun-toting fanatics begin jumping out from behind the bushes, we are neither surprised nor particularly interested.

The film tries hard to get us on its central character's side, but starting with an intrusive voice-over in which he reflects on his life with all the delicacy of an adolescent short story was probably no the way to go. O'Byrne, star of Gogan's previous feature The Last Bus Home, makes a sincere attempt for our sympathies with a determined but composed face and a slow, measured tone of voice which singles him out as everyman, but he comes off as rather dull. The script seems eager to address this problem by giving him plenty of backstory. First of all it makes him a Quaker (which seems such a painfully transparent bit of political allegorising that it hardly bears talking about), then, somewhat improbably, throws in the suggestion that he has taken this rather hazardous assignment as part of a quest to shake off a failed romance. Whoever told this man that the border counties were a place to get away from it all really should not be trusted for any further advice.

With this level of subtextual weight attached to the central character, one might have expected the screenplay to go down some unapproved roads (an early shot of a Fermanagh signpost bearing those very words produces some expectation of this direction). But, having set all of the backstory up in a couple of minutes of voice-over, the film stops developing the character and he ends up becoming the standard innocent in the midst of chaos as sectarian tensions mount. The failed romance thing becomes a set up for the romantic sub-plot and the Quaker thing is used to justify the character's frequent solemn moralising. Nothing that O'Byrne does can distract the audience from the impression that the character is nothing more than a cypher though, and Gogan has nothing surprising to say at any time in spite of the obvious sincerity.

There is some that is of interest in Owen McPolin's cinematography (H3, Drinking Crude). Though it is not startling or dramatic, the film's visual texture is certainly part of its meaning. The mixture of grainy stocks with more conventional views of trees, shrubs and skeletons reinforces the symbolic preoccupation with landscape at the centre of the plot. Blurred, filtered, and otherwise affected visions of the countryside framed by memory, perspective, and the recording technology by which man seeks to order and record it are all suggested through a combination of photographic techniques marshalled by McPolin. The cinematographer manages to give the landscape enough character to sustain the director's assessment of the issues involved with it, but, in truth, we have seen or heard all of this before.

Mapmaker is an earnest and sombre film which is not dramatically engaging enough to make it worth a look on its own terms, nor it is sufficiently at variance with the bulk of Irish films on this loose configuration of topics to distinguish it from the herd. Casual viewers will be pretty bored by most of it, and though there is more in there for students of Irish cinema than for the average punter, they too will find themselves sighing and yawning too often for them to make it all the way through unless they have to. It is not easy to make a feature film in modern Ireland, Lord knows, but this doesn't mean that a half-baked collection of ideas should go into production just because it his a number of thematic triggers, and because it probably, with all due irony given the subject of the film, looked good on paper. Mapmaker is a disappointing follow up to The Last Bus Home, though perhaps its production will mean a continued career for Gogan in a film industry which relies too heavily on one-offs. Let's just hope that the next one retains some of the edgy energy of his first film and leaves behind the anaemic solemnity of this one.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2003.