With or Without You (1999)

D: Michael Winterbottom
S: Christopher Eccleston, Dervla Kirwan

When does a national cinema feel confident enough in itself to abandon a sense of nationality? More to the point, when does a national audience feel comfortable enough with the produce of its cinema to see films which are generic to the point of being almost nationally anonymous without feeling the need to remark on it? With or Without You is a completely unremarkable comedy drama about a romantic triangle which happens to be set in Northern Ireland. It features certain trappings of contemporary Irish society, most significantly a scene in which the nocturnal entertainments of the two communities becomes the basis for a semi-comic observation, but the story is essentially universal in a bad way in that it really could have been set anywhere with absolutely no effect whatsoever on any of its dramatic elements.

The story follows the complications which ensue when a generally happy couple attempt to have a child. He (Christopher Eccleston) is a former police officer (a backstory which cries out for a political reading, but none offers itself). She (Dervla Kirwan) works at the local concert hall as a receptionist. After much effort (and a couple of raunchy sex scenes), there is no result, which inevitably puts strain on their relationship. The real trouble begins when Kirwan's former pen pal (Yvan Attal) shows up out of the blue and moves in with them for a while. Her sense of romance is rekindled by the charming Frenchman. Her husband's frustration drives him back to his former girlfriend. Having a baby suddenly seems to come second to having a marriage at all.

John Forte's screenplay does little to nothing with this scenario that one might not reasonably expect given the premise. The story follows predictable lines of conflict and resolution, the characterisation is perfunctory and the setting is more or less incidental. At a recent conference on Irish cinema, academic author Martin McLoone remarked on how at one point during a conversation between Kirwan and Attal, director Michael Winterbottom's camera seems to wander off on a virtual tour of Belfast which has more of interest simply as a geographical montage than anything being said by the script. It is as if the film is bored with itself, and the director seems to feel the need to enliven the proceedings by taking the cinematic equivalent of a brisk walk. The same seems to apply to the visual style of the film on the whole, the washed-out tone of which serves no obvious purpose, let alone the strange, anachronistic use of wipes and masking.

For a film set in Northern Ireland, With or Without You has little recognisable sense of place. Even the humour in the film seems generic. Colin Bateman may owe some kind of debt to Quentin Tarantino (or maybe crime writers like Elmore Leonard and Carl Haissen), but films of his work are generally brimming with black comedy drawn from the experience of the culture and politics of Northern Ireland (Divorcing Jack, Cycle of Violence). Forte throws in a couple of situational and dialogue-based gags here, and the overall tone is meant to be lightly humorous, but nothing about it smacks of the particular humour of the place in which it is set.

The film is so bafflingly devoid of parochialism as to make one wonder if this is not precisely the point. If so then I suppose we should think about how it raises questions about Irish identity by not raising them at all. This is a peculiar double-bluff which does not necessarily sustain analysis much longer than a bucket of popcorn, and lacking any particular merit in its own terms as a piece of dramatic writing or direction, the film has little left to fall back on other than its performances. These are adequate to the task of telling the story, but with characters as unremarkable as these, there is little nuance for Eccleston and Kirwan to explore, let alone Attal as the faintly laughable and rather cliched Frenchman.

With the titular U2 song on its soundtrack, a shamrock on the DVD cover, and a review quote calling it "irresistibly Irish", we have to presume that there is something here which speaks of the particulars of the country in which it is nominally set. On viewing it though, the film seems about as inherently Irish as Waking Ned (a film scripted to be set in Wales, shot in the Isle of Man, and eventually set on the Emerald Isle because it seemed like a good idea at the time). It is not as poor a film as that (few films are), but it is bland and generic to the point where there is little real reason to recommend it to film buffs, Irish film buffs, casual viewers, or pretty much anyone. Late night TV filler material presented by Miramax and Film Four, which proves that 'independence' is no guarantee of quality.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2002.