Indy Datta ponders what The Guard means for Irish cinema
Irish cinema is almost as old as the medium itself – the Lumière Cinematographe played in Dublin mere months after its Paris debut in 1896 – but viewed from the other side of the Irish sea, the history of Irish cinema has always seemed to be largely defined by Ireland’s complex relationship with Britain, and by its relationship (through its diaspora, and through the cultural power of Hollywood) with America and American film. That narrative, which is evidently partial in both senses, provides a consistent story stretching from the 1918 historical epic Knocknagow (cited as Ireland’s own Birth of a Nation and a significant box office success in America) to the Hollywood success of Neil Jordan.
John Michael McDonagh’s feature debut The Guard fits into this broad history. McDonagh is a Briton of Irish extraction, and his film – a verbally dextrous comedy thriller not tonally that different from his brother Martin’s In Bruges – is studded in stimulating ways with the slipstream detritus of American popular culture. This goes from the broadest strokes (the local lawman gets together with the slick big-city cop to run some bandits out of town) to the most peripheral details (an argument about just what Billie Joe and the girl were throwing off the Tallahatchie Bridge). But there’s another story to be told here. The Guard has grossed close to three million pounds at the Irish box office: a sum not far shy of what the latest Harry Potter instalment has racked up. And The Guard is not an isolated case. It only this week surpassed the Irish box office tally for In Bruges, and has some way to go to catch the cumulative gross of Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley.
So The Guard is off to a good start commercially, which is more than can be said for the film itself.
An ugly, overdirected opening sequence of young tearaways speeding through the Galway countryside in a hot hatchback is just the first instance of a visual style that takes a while to settle down. (The early stages are full of, frankly, horrible shots). A motley collection of bad guys in another car have an entirely spurious conversation about their favourite quotes from famous philosophers that reeks of the first draft, and of Royale with Cheese. And in some respects, there’s a half-arsed quality to it that persists all the way through: there’s at least one character (played by Katarina Cas, who looks like an east-European Scarlett Johansson) who has literally no function in the story, no good lines, and no reason to be in the film beyond what I said in my parentheses.
But, you know, in a glib and slick entertainment like The Guard that can be a good enough reason, and in a little postmodern curlicue towards the end, in which a character riffs on selling the movie rights to the story we’ve just seen, McDonagh acknowledges that pretty girls make any story more palatable on film. The visuals do get better (there’s a striking scene in an aquarium, just on the edge of surreal). And there are big laughs in most scenes, and a more than solid supporting cast (Mark Strong gives good Mark Strong in the Mark Strong role, Pat Shortt has a bracing cameo as an IRA quartermaster, and Don Cheadle gives his underwritten FBI agent fish-out-of-water part humanity and gravity).
But the main reason to see The Guard, of course, is the central character of lonely, whoring, drunkard rural policeman Gerry Boyle, whom McDonagh gives wit and brains, and to whom Brendan Gleeson lends a piercing sadness. McDonagh, at the screening I attended, talked about how he poured all his rage and bitterness into Boyle, at a time when his career was going nowhere, but the portrait Gleeson gives us is of a man who has been so worn down by the quotidian corruption and meaninglessness of his life (McDonagh spares us the sentimental backstory, for which applause and thanks) that he has no reasons left in the world to give a fuck, apart from his old mother, who is dying of cancer. You know how that story ends.
Clearly, there is an appetite in Ireland for quality commercial cinema on Irish subject matter – and in the context of the tax reliefs that have been bringing international productions to Ireland since the late nineties, and the local talent base to feed that appetite, this should continue. The Wind That Shakes The Barley, In Bruges and The Guard all had British directors, but there’s also evidence of a promising new wave of Irish indie directors, including Leonard Abrahamson, Perry Ogden and Conor Horgan. There’s clearly evidence of an emergent film culture that would nurture filmmakers like these, even in Ireland’s post-Tiger hangover economy. But a question remains: having lapped up the commercial hits, will Irish audiences ignore more challenging fare?