by Kevin Power
In a hidden cove on a remote island, a man stands at the water's edge, contemplating if he should wade out and vanish beneath the waves. He decides instead to return to a cave where what little he has on this earth remains, and despite everything, survive a little longer, for a purpose unknown and unfulfilled.
This is Colmán Sharkey (Dónall Ó Héalaí), a man whose mind is split by unimaginable loss, whose malnourished body has been whittled down to the lightest frame possible. And this is 1840s Connemara, a vista that in many ways mirrors the man; weathered by centuries of Atlantic nagging and west coast winds, devastated by foreign occupation and now a cruel potato blight. Yet still, Colmán and the landscape are determined to persevere.
Right from the beginning it is clear that Tom Sullivan’s Arracht (Irish for ‘Monster’), while very much rooted in the great famine, will be about a lot more than the struggle to salvage food from the rotting soil. This is a story about trauma, inflicted and inherited, and the strength and resolve of a human spirit to find meaning in the aftermath.
It comes as a genuine surprise in Arracht when the characters converse in English for the first time, gathered to meet their landlord (Michael McElhatton). The film has a slow first act, carefully establishing all of the features of this place and time, luring the viewer fully into the way of life of its people. It is unquestionable that these characters would speak Irish while in isolation with each other, and the film does not shy away from that, declining a fully English script and trusting that the audience is mature enough to prefer a realistic depiction of the Irish community. The dialogue and dialect are both beautiful and believable, and when the subtitles disappear for English conversation in the landlord’s foyer it creates tension, unsettling the viewer and reminding them these characters are living in the shadow of oppressors off-screen. The tension is maintained as this first act culminates in a bloody confrontation that could well have been the finale to a different film, pulling the rug out from under the viewer by establishing that the stakes are high; these times are desperate and violent, and death could always be but a moment away.
Language isn’t the only authentic feature of Arracht; the film draws from historically accurate filming locations, pain-stakingly detailed costuming and set design, and believable characters to paint a complete picture of famine Ireland. Impressively, Arracht was filmed in just twenty days in Lettermullen, Connemara, the real world location depicted on screen. Given the film’s script, it really could not have been filmed anywhere else; areas of the Galway coastline seem untouched by time, from the lichen-covered rocky seascape, to the stone houses and fences on the hills in the background of scenes, to the Hooker boats gliding across the picturesque bay. The film is real in every detail, right down to the makeshift boards and twine that Colmán uses when fishing, to the heated rocks in the cooking pits that he uses to smoke his catch. All of these factors come together to breathe an authenticity into the film that helps it blend unquestionably into the time period.
In a film like this that focuses on a central protagonist present in almost every scene, the character's development and arc across the story is crucial, and Ó Héalaí does well to display all sides of the human condition during the film, from hope to heartbreak, and the slow path to repair. Colmán is shaped by inherited trauma, born into national oppression and a family with a history of alcoholism. Despite brewing poitin to make ends meet, Colmán has sworn off the spirit, having seen the damage it is capable of. Colmán is sharpened like a spear tip, a survivor capable of living off the land and bending it to his will, which puts him at odds with his fellow man, growing weaker and more dependent by the day. Alongside Ó Héalaí comes a fantastic performance in the form of Kitty (Saise Ní Chuinn). Saise was ten years old at the time of filming, but very much embodies the spirit of Mná na hÉireann; a fiery youth and an unwillingness to take things lying down, which becomes the catalyst for Colmán’s return to humanity.
Surrounding these two pivotal roles are a believable, well written supporting cast; they are complex and sympathetic, each of their motivations convincing. All of them struggling with circumstances they cannot control as the land around them wilts away, and driven by desperation to counteract in order to survive. The film does not provide a straightforward answer to the question of who the Monster is in its title. The easiest answer is perhaps the English empire, by whose influence other foods were exported from Ireland during this time, and taxations on lands remained high. Colmán is under no illusions that ultimately they are to blame, correcting a character that their circumstances are not an act of God happening to them, but a situation actively being forced upon them by other people. The film however does not pick at this low hanging fruit, with English characters noticeably absent for the film’s majority, and it is much more interested in following native complicated characters. The landlord’s strict implementations are only by the will of a higher power. Patsy, an Irishman, has become a literal monster, capable only of resorting to violence to resolve his problems, but it is easier to imagine Patsy as a foil to Colmán, one potential outcome for him if he can not maintain control of his own demons. Colmán too, as a stand in for the audience, is driven to brutal inhuman acts, especially in the film’s climax: the pathetic fallacy of the scene is not missed, as the final confrontation occurs beneath a grey, storm-laden sky. It is morally complex, but that makes it all the more human and believable.
Arracht is at the forefront of a wave of change in Irish film making. The film was funded through Cine4, a joint initiative from TG4, The Irish Film Board, and the Broadcast Authority of Ireland. This initiative aims to fund two Irish language films per year on a production budget of €1.2 million each. The emphasis on the usage of the mother tongue is revolutionary, encouraging creators simultaneously to explore the whole truth of our national identity, and tell stories that were long considered to be ‘off the table’. The famine changed Ireland forever, halving its population through death and emigration, but has only recently been tackled on the big screen by Black 47 (2018) and Arracht. Fled by Irish writer Karen Cogan recently topped The Brit List, a collection of the best unproduced scripts, with a story focused on Mother and Baby homes, Ireland’s institutions that provided shelter for unwed mothers - many of whom suffered abuse at the hands of the state. I was fortunate enough to catch Arracht as part of The Capital Irish Film Festival, after which a Q&A between Paddy Meskell (co-chair of the Solas Nua Board), Tom O’Sullivan and Dónall Ó Héalaí played. A quote from the session has stuck with me since watching, where Tom stated that the Irish are “done asking for permission to tell their stories”. We are finally ready to begin a catharsis of sorts, by writing through the more painful moments of our history. I think that should be considered a promising sign for the future of storytelling in Ireland.