Three remarkable new Irish films wowed festival goers at the Tribeca Film Festival this spring. Independently made on shoestring budgets but featuring remarkable performances by both newcomers and Hollywood heavy hitters, each of the three films shared something in common: their unmistakable commitment to Irish writing, Irish acting talent and even the Irish landscape. The first of the three films to make its debut at the festival was Zonad, the genre-busting laugh-out-loud comedy by John Carney (director of the recent Irish Oscar winner Once). Starring newcomer Simon Delaney in a breakout role, Zonad is part Carry-On comedy, part 1950’s Sci-Fi potboiler, and part hearty revenge on America for decades of overly sentimental Irish nonsense like The Quiet Man and Darby O’Gill.
Part of the fun of Zonad is that you have literally never seen anything quite like it from Ireland before. When the title character (played by Delaney) arrives in the little village of Ballymoran (looking like Britney Spears’s overweight dad in a red jumpsuit), he’s instantly accepted by the overly friendly locals. Somehow they never get around to asking the so-called spaceman difficult questions like “where’s your spaceship?” or “how come you speak English?” Instead they excitedly welcome him to their community the way they’d welcome anyone, with a stone-cold pint of Guinness.
After the international success of Once, Carney had the perfect excuse to pursue a small-budget film without controversy and he took a chance on this labor of love. Zonad is, to put it mildly, as nutty as a fruitcake but it has cult hit written all over it. It’s also introduced Simon Delaney to the U.S. public (he picked up a new agent and a representative at the Tribeca Festival), a fact we should all be grateful for.
Next in line is a new Irish drama that looks unlike anything that’s come out of Ireland before. My Brothers, written by Irish screenwriter Will Collins, 33, and directed by British man Paul Fraser, 37, is an immensely powerful story about three young working-class Cork brothers who take an impromptu road trip together to pick up a new watch for their dying father.
As metaphors go, that may sound like a gauche one, but the performances by the young Irish cast and the assured cinema verité direction lift this film far above its occasional contrivances to turn it into something deeply affecting. My Brothers eventually hits you with the cumulative force of an avalanche.
As the film begins, the three boys’ free-spirited father (Don Wycherley) is already close to death and the eldest boy is busy storing his fears in a private journal. “Soon it will be over,” writes 17-year-old Noel (Timmy Creed, in an impressive screen debut). “Soon it will be every man for himself.”
As you’re watching it, it’s increasingly hard to tell if the film is autobiographical or fiction because it’s so well observed that it feels personal, as if it were the record of an actual life experience replayed in front of your eyes.
It’s the slow-motion death of their father and the three boys’ individual responses to the fact that makes the film unforgettable. Noel, the oldest boy, is already haunted by the inevitable, but Paudie (Paul Courtney), the spirited 12-year-old middle kid, has decided the way to get through it is by telling jokes (even though there’s real pathos hidden beneath all his playacting). That leaves Scwally, the 7-year-old Star Wars-obsessed kid, who can’t quite grasp the gravity of the situation they’re facing into. The 1987 milieu and the relentless reality of the tone and setting make this a new Irish film not to be missed.
Neither Colin Farrell nor Neil Jordan need an introduction at this point, but their decision to work together on Ondine, a beguiling Irish yarn about a man who falls for a woman who may well be a mermaid, works like a dream.
There’s a late Shakespearian feel to this tale of discovery and forgiveness that was shot on an independent budget. Farrell plays a divorced County Cork fisherman, the recovering alcoholic named Syracuse (or Circus, as he’s mockingly nicknamed by the locals). Syracuse is a good man brought low by his own weaknesses but there’s still some fight in him, and the temptation to see the overlap between the character and the actor playing him is at times overwhelming.
As Farrell gets to grips with the considerable challenge of a Cork accent, there’s also the pleasure of seeing the star reconnect with his own talent. Jordan was astute to cast the young actor whose own personal life was becoming a five-alarm fire. It’s love that restores Syracuse to himself, and it was Ondine that introduced Farrell to his real-life partner, the gorgeous Polish actress Alicja Bachleda, his co-star in the film. That dual awareness makes the happy ending all the sweeter.