Sweety Barrett (1998)

D: Stephen Bradley
S: Brendan Gleeson, Liam Cunningham

Strange but not uninteresting Irish-Icelandic co-production written and directed by Stephen Bradley which is often reminiscent of some of the odd short films which rejuvenated the Irish film industry in the 1970s. The story centres on a simpleton circus performer played by Brendan Gleeson (The General, I Went Down) who is cast adrift by his employer as the film begins and wanders into a small fishing community. He manages to integrate himself with the locals and befriends a young boy with whom he shares a mental age. Meanwhile corrupt cop Liam Cunningham has the village under his thumb and runs a clandestine Poitín smuggling operation in which Gleeson unwittingly assists. His reign of terror will inevitably come to an end through the intervention of the child-like man, though it takes some time before we get to see how.

There are some lyrical moments in Bradley's film, which is nicely photographed by Thomas Mauch. Stephen McKeown's score is uncharacteristically lush for an Irish film (as was his score for The Boy From Mercury), and tends to work in conjunction with the images and some quietly reflective scenes to sustain the film's mood. However, there is a fine line between Felliniesque lyricism and sentimental pap. Sweety Barrett does not always manage to stay on the right side of that line. It is frequently obvious and many of its secondary characters are from the growing stock of contemporary stereotypes which have replaced the older, less politically acceptable ones (though films likeWaking Ned keep those alive too). Dramatically, the film wavers after a lengthy set up; bringing Sweety into conflict with his spiritual opposite through a series of sub-plots and contrivances. The problem is that Sweety is a passive protagonist. Lacking a particular goal or plan, he simply hangs around getting to know people until galvanised into action in the film's final scenes. He becomes something of a holy avenger, saving the town not because he chooses to do so, but because he has responded to an external stimulus. He does this throughout the story, as if driven by fate and the hand of God rather than the world of man. There is no strong narrative thread to hold the audience, though they may enjoy the tone. They may not of course, and if they don't there is nothing else for them to wait around for.

The film therefore depends to much too large an extent on just how much you enjoy Gleeson's performance. He is by now Ireland's most prolific and exciting actor, and after a plethora of unsavoury characters, he obviously warmed to the opportunity to play the good-hearted giant. He is generally good in the role, and it is not necessarily his fault that the character occasionally becomes wearing. There are many good moments for him though, and he sustains a tone of a mixture of determination and innocence which makes him convincing. But there is a limit to just how much of Sweety you can take, and after so many repetitions of the basic relationship between him and the world as he encounters each new character, you begin to wish it would end. There are some colourful set pieces: some business with Mikel Murfi and Raymond Keane of the Barabbas theatre company as gormless police officers and a revolting return to Cool Hand Luke where Gleeson demonstrates his character's talent for 'swallowing things' by drinking eggs, cooking fat and worms. The supporting performances are okay, though Cunningham is laughably excessive in a role seemed destined for Sean McGinley. Every element of the film ultimately turns on Gleeson, and it is with him that its success or failure for you as a viewer lies. This is not a good position to place the audience in, and Sweety Barrett will probably continue to walk a tightrope between dismissal and admiration for some time. It is worth seeing only if you have an interest in slightly offbeat Irish films. Casual viewers should probably avoid it.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.