Puckoon (2003)

D: Terence Ryan
S: Sean Hughes, Griff Rhys Jones

Literature continues to take centre stage in the hierarchy of Irish high culture. Over time there has been a strain of satirical writing which leans towards the surreal, seen in the writings of Flann O'Brien, James Joyce, and of course Spike Milligan. Puckoon is the latest attempt to film an 'unfilmable' Irish novel, an adaptation of Milligan's political comedy set in 1924. The plot is set in motion when the infamous Boundary Commission draws up the border which will split the island of Ireland into two states. The village of "Puckoon" is smack in the middle of the imaginary line which is about to become real. When it does, the lives of the residents are thrown into the proverbial turmoil, with absurd comic results. Written with more care in the prose than the wackiness of it all would suggest, this book seemed an ideal choice for adaptation, particularly in the climate of an Irish cinema reaching out for new material and new style in the wake of the boom of the 1990s.

To be fair to it, writer and director Terence Ryan's film tries to be faithful to Milligan's style and spirit. It is actually pretty close to the book in some respects, and tries hard to find a visual equivalent of the tongue-in-cheek sidelong glances characteristic of the spiritual father of Monty Python. However, there is a slippery, subtle level of artistry in writing of this kind which it takes great cinematic skill to render. Luis Buñuel might have done it, or maybe Jean-Luc Goddard on a good day, but it is a task beyond this filmmaker. In spite of what are evidently the best of intentions and even with the participation of a talented cast of performers, Ryan ends up presenting a superficial fantasia of paddywhackery which will amuse only those who find ceramic Leprechauns genuinely charming.

The problems begin with the film's leading man. Belatedly cast in the central role, mild comedian Sean Hughes lacks the big screen charisma to hold together an already teetering structure. As the graveyard maintenance man who finds his place of work turning into a literal battleground, Hughes radiates an affable but vacuous small-screen charm which relies heavily on the 'nod and a wink' school of acting to elicit sympathy. As the madness around him escalates, the actor is swamped by it, and not in a manner that he can stand above (or below) the chaos and observe it wryly like an omniscient narrator. In fact, the film plays games with the idea of narration, featuring none other than Sir Richard Attenborough as the storyteller who interacts with his frequently frustrated and rebellious characters, a conceit again linked to the political subtext on a level the film is able only to suggest and never to explore.

Puckoon never develops a steady rhythm though it more or less consistently strives for a tone of broad burlesque caricature which will carry it though. This succeeds in some respects and in small moments and asides, but there is often something painfully forced about it which makes the film less easy to watch than it should be. Griff Rhys Jones is a prime example of this problem in the role of the stuffy British commander who tries to enforce a checkpoint in the middle of the graveyard but whose stiff-upper-lip characterisation is completely one-note and eventually tiresome. Milo O'Shea and David Kelly fare better in small supporting roles, as does a surprising Elliot Gould. Indeed, the smaller the role the better, because once these characters remain on screen for any longer than the initial gag, the lack of depth becomes obvious. Ryan is unable to draw the strands of story, satire, and characterisation through the film, and when the narrative deliberately spins off into postmodern deconstruction, it seems like he has lost control rather than taken the surrealism to the next level.

There is a rash of evident good intentions behind this project, plus masses of goodwill directed towards the late, great Milligan himself which spurred the participation of such an array of actors. Primarily produced within Northern Ireland, but with money drawn from the Republic as well, there was a very real chance that Puckoon could not only have been very funny, it might have had something to say on a subject admittedly over exposed in general terms throughout the history of Irish cinema on the whole. As is though, it is a painfully unfunny mess which draws its few mild smiles from fleeting moments. That said, undemanding Hibernophiles with a religious respect for The Quiet Man and an unreconstructed lowbrow sense of humour will probably enjoy it on a whole other level. Though not as offensive or cynical as Waking Ned, it lacks many ineffable qualities including charm, irony, and subtlety, all of which were sorely needed to make the film work.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2003.