Irish Film Festival Reviews

Still from Steps of Freedom, courtesy of IFF

Find reviews here of Steps into Freedom, Let the Wrong One In and An Cailín Ciúin/The Quiet Girl

More reviews will appear next month.

Steps of Freedom (RTÉ/BBC/American Public Television) which opened the Festival in Melbourne.

Reviewed by Jeanette Mollenhauer

This combined Irish/British/American documentary about Irish dance is ambitious but, I believe, is also successful in relating a long and complex narrative. Interestingly, the opening suite of short clips features African American woman Morgan Bullock, accused of cultural appropriation following her TikTok presentation in 2020 but now, a member of the Riverdance troupe. Using Bullock in this way immediately highlights the incredible diversity of Irish dancers across the globe and thus positions the subject of Irish dance as relevant to more than just those with Irish ancestry.

Morgan Bullock (Creative Commons)

Steps into Freedom combines short excerpts of performances of all the dance forms indigenous to Ireland: step dance (the most famous), the other solo dance style, sean nós, and the two social genres, céilí and set dancing. Performers and choreographers talk about their personal experiences with dance in a frank and engaging manner. Most often, their performances are situated within impressive locations, including clifftops, verdant pastures and colourful farmhouse gardens. This certainly promotes the stunning beauty of Ireland while telling the story of Irish dance but, more significantly, links the physical land with the cultural traditions. 

The film presents some important points about dance in general: namely, that it is a common human activity and that in many cultures including Ireland, it is an integral part of the social fabric rather than being restricted to elite professionals, reserved for nightclubs and weddings, or viewed as a practice that should be avoided at all times. In relation to Irish dance, the film presents a nuanced account of the historical, political and religious factors that have shaped it, ranging from the Battle of the Boyne to Cromwell’s army to the Gaelic League and the Catholic Church. To do so, the makers use a combination of still shots of visual artworks representing dance in previous centuries, clips of choreographic re-enactments with dancers in historically representative clothing and old videos such as the British Pathé films from the early twentieth century.

Numerous interviewees feature throughout the film. There are experts on Irish history and culture such as Aoife Whelan, lecturer in Modern Irish and Irish Studies at University College Dublin and Jonathan Skinner, Reader in Anthropology at The University of Surrey. Others are authorities in Irish dance: Catherine Foley from The Irish World Academy for Music and Dance, University of Limerick, and John Cullinane who has written several books about Irish dance around the world, including Australia. While they present concise observations about historical events, cultural shifts and changes in dance practice, they speak in everyday language and clearly reflect their passion for Ireland and its traditions.

The story of Irish dance in the United States is given considerable attention, which is not surprising given the American involvement in producing the film. In particular, the fluctuating relationship between Irish immigrants and African Americans is addressed and here, Steps into Freedom does not gloss over difficult history. Some time is also devoted to the similarities between step dance and tap dance, describing occasions of collaboration between practitioners of each style.

While much American dance history may not interest some Australian viewers, another strand of the Irish-American choreographic narrative features the careers of Michael Flatley and Jean Butler, lead dancers in the original 1994 Riverdance. Butler speaks several times throughout the film, first about step dance in general and then concerning the development of theatricalised Irish dance. By concluding with the stage shows, the film also makes the point that traditional dance is not static or fossilised but, instead, is preserved through invention and innovation. It explains that for step dance, such processes have always been observable through the fierce competition environment, but they were augmented by the theatrical performances of Flatley, Butler and their successors.

For a documentary, Steps to Freedom is long, at 100 minutes. This did not concern me, but I am a dance scholar and was fascinated for its entirety. Some may find the length to be a problem; there is certainly a lot of information to be absorbed. I would recommend it to anyone (from late teens upward) who is involved in Irish dance of any kind so that they can grasp the depth and breadth of socio-cultural history embedded in their chosen pastime. It will also be absorbing for anyone generally interested in Irish history and culture. Significantly, the film addresses the most common and vexing question about Irish dance: ‘why don’t they use their arms?’ If you’ve ever wondered, you will have to watch Steps to Freedom to find answers. 

Jeanette Mollenhauer has completed a PhD on Irish dancing in Australia.

Let the Wrong One In reviewed by Steve Carey

Shaun of the Dead meets What We Do In The Shadows meets Trainspotting in this entertaining suburban Dublin comedy vampire horror, showing as part of the Australian Irish Film Festival 2022. When young supermarket worker Matt (Karl Rice in his first lead role) discovers his waster brother Deco (Eoin Duffy, ditto) has progressed beyond hard drugs and become a vampire, he’s faced with a dilemma: stick a stake through his heart, or take him in? Trainspotter Henry (Anthony Head, resuming his Buffy The Vampire Slayer) turns up on the doorstep as the local vigilante and steals every scene until, like Janet Leigh in Psycho, he meets a surprisingly early and unsurprisingly gory death. 

Those who feel Dublin in general and its youth, in particular, are going to the dogs will surely recognise the surly insolence and the substance abuse – the substance, in this case, being blood. There’s plenty of over-the-top violence, wit – ‘I’m your own flesh and blood’; ‘Yeah, and it’s all over me!’ – and invention. The limited budget inevitably shows through at times – for long stretches the movie is stuck in the family home – and there are plot holes you could drive a fleet of Transylvanian horses and carriages through, but the pace is brisk and there are enough good one-liners to keep us onside.

Beneath the comically gory gouts of blood and violence there are surprisingly serious themes from writer and director Conor McMahon. No-one has much going on in their lives other than terrible work and partying and drugs. Vampires have a taste for blood because they have nothing else, though the answer is hardly knowing more about trains, as does Henry, than about your bride-to-be. What makes someone turn bad? Is Deco an addict because he’s bad or bad because he’s an addict? How does you care for an addict you love, without either enabling them – serving up fresh flesh for them to feed on – or banishing them, so that they lose their remaining stability and hold on normality? The real bloodsuckers, in fact, are the pushers, the betting companies and those in power, and the vampires themselves are victims as well as villains.

But the social commentary is never intrusive and the set scenes – the training montage, the fights, the chases, the final triumph – are allowed full rein. There’s an obligatory happy ending and everyone finds how to make the best, albeit an unconventional best, of things. You’ve missed it in the Irish Film Festival, but it will no doubt be available on streaming, and it’s just what you need after a good Friday night session with your mates.

Dr Steve Carey is a Melbourne-based Clinical Hypnotherapist and the Treasurer of Bloomsday in Melbourneu

An Cailín Ciúin. The Quiet Girl

Review by Orla Morrissey

I first heard of this movie from my IGNO (Irish Girls Night Out) friends when one asked on our WhatsApp Group what movie would be good to watch at the 2022 Irish Film Festival. The group unanimously agreed that An Cailín Ciúin was the one to see. I was immediately captivated, looked at the trailers and read the reviews, but nothing could have prepared me for the real thing.

It is a beautiful movie, that I could watch regularly and still get something out of it. My husband who is an Australian of Irish descent feels the same. The movie is very true to rural Ireland of the early 1980s – the ticking clock, radio announcements, kitchen floor, wallpaper in the dead son’s room, the deconstructed salad. However, at the same time could be filmed elsewhere, the themes are universal.    

The story is very simple and so acts as a backdrop to the themes it wishes to draw out. It is a story of a young girl (Cáit) who lives with her parents and a large brood of siblings in rural Ireland. Her father is an alcoholic, gambler and womaniser. Played exceptionally well by Michael Patric, he is very overbearing, brooding and menacing. Cáit’s mother tries her best but is overwhelmed by her circumstances. Cáit is the difficult child of the family. She can’t read very well, runs away from school and leaves the family home often to spend time on her own wandering the fields. Cáit’s mother is pregnant again and so the parents decide to send Cáit to stay for a while with a distant cousin of her mother, Eibhlín and her husband Seán.

Cáit’s father is very resentful of Eibhlín and Seán. It’s as if he senses their goodness and how it exposes his badness. He lies about bringing in the hay so he doesn’t look bad to them but Cáit knows he is lying. It feels like this is the first time she sees her father for what he is and so begins Cáit’s journey of growing up and discovery of what the world is like and could be. His callousness towards Cáit is shown again when he is about to leave, he forgets to give her the suitcase of clothes.  Eibhlín covers this up very well by putting her in her dead son’s clothes. Eibhlín just doesn’t tell Cáit this fact.  

Eibhlín immediately takes Cáit under her wing and teaches her to peel potatoes, cook and clean. Seán, however, is very cold and distant towards her. Cáit is perplexed by this but doesn’t ask. Things initially go from bad to worse when Cáit is left alone with him on the farm for a day. She wanders off and Seán frantically searches for her. When he finds her, he is very angry and Cáit doesn’t understand why. You can see on Cáit’s face that she is scared that Seán is really like her own Dad. Seán realises that he has upset Cáit and makes efforts to care for her.  Overtime they develop a strong bond and he spoils her by leaving her biscuits on the table and giving her money to get ice-cream (enough for a dozen). They even joke about the merits of husbands.

When Cáit comes to live with Eibhlín and Seán, Eibhlín tells her that there are no secrets in the house. Yet, they don’t tell Cáit about their son who died. Some viewers have criticised Eibhlín and Seán as hypocritical. I don’t think that is the case. I don’t think it was that they kept a secret but more that they didn’t explicitly tell her. Perhaps they had buried it so deep they didn’t know how. If it was a secret then they wouldn’t have dressed her in their dead son’s clothes.

At the end of a neighbour’s funeral another neighbour takes her home. Una is the quintessential nosy and know-all Irish neighbour. She asks whether Eibhlín uses butter or margarine in her pastry, a sign of money and class in 1980’s Ireland. Thankfully, Cáit has the where with all to say butter. But what is so bad about this type of neighbour is the brutal way she tells Cáit about what happened to Eibhlín and Seán’s son. Not only that but when they arrive at Una’s house it is dirty and chaotic like Cáit’s own family house. It is another time where the badness and the brutality of the world is juxtaposed against the gentleness of Eibhlín and Seán’s world.         

It is through Eibhlín and Seán’s love and care for Cáit that she blossoms. In turn, Cáit’s response to Eibhlín and Seán’s love and care that they give themselves permission to heal. These aspects shine through the story and grow layer upon layer in such a delicate way, not obvious, not mawkish.  

Eventually Cáit has to go home. Seán tries to delay it but Eibhlín insists. They do take her home and you can feel the mounting misery. Cáit’s mother senses that Cáit has blossomed whilst she is away and is resentful. The visit to drop her home becomes increasingly more awkward and tense, especially as Cáit’s father has been out drinking and is in a mood to pick a fight. Eibhlín and Seán eventually leave and say goodbye. Cáit runs after them and catches them at the end of the laneway to the farm. Cáit jumps up into the arms of Seán as he closes the gate. They hug and it is so full of love on both sides. The camera throws to Eibhlín bawling in the front seat of the car and then to Cáit’s father as he comes thundering down the driveway. Cáit says Daddy twice and it is only in the second saying that you realise what she means.

It is said that the author of the novella Foster that underpins the movie, Claire Keegan, leaves it up to the reader to decide how the story is completed. If I could complete the story I know what ending I would pick!

This movie has won lots of accolades to date and all have been very deserving. This is a tour de force by Colm Bairéad. Colm grew up in a house where his own father only spoke to him in Irish and you can see that in how the film is made, the emphasis on light, nature and what is often not said rather than said.               

Orla Morrissey MB, BCh, FRACP, Grad Dip (Clin Epi), PhD, AFRACMA. Infectious Diseases Physician, Department of Infectious Diseases, Alfred Health Melbourne.