Hollywood has exploited the Emerald Isle as a background for films time without end, but the struggle for a truly indigenous Irish cinema has been long and arduous. Thanks in part to aid from the government’s Irish Film Board, the last five years have seen an unprecedented volume of films made in the country. This series includes a number of premieres by new directors, a six-film tribute to Neil Jordan, and an overview of recent successful releases, among them, Paddy Breathnach’s beguiling movie I Went Down and Gillies MacKinnon’s witty depiction of an untouristy slice of Irish society, Trojan Eddie.
A recurrent concern of Irish filmmakers over the years has been the metaphysics of political violence; more recent themes have involved an interrogation of religion, especially in relation to sexuality and gender, and a depiction of the cross-fertilization of Ireland and America. Both Elizabeth Gill’s Gold in the Streets (1997) and Jimmy Smallhorne’s 2by4 (1998) are set in the Bronx in the 1990s, among Irish emigrants. While Gold is a bland affair, inhabited by stereotypical characters, 2by4 is a white-hot and provocative directorial debut.
Dubliner Smallhorne, who also plays the lead, is a founder of the Bronx Irish Theater, where he cut his teeth as an actor and director. The film’s central character, bisexual cokehead Johnny, works as foreman at a construction company run by his shifty uncle. Scarred by the uncle’s sadomasochistic sex abuse, he’s on a downward spiral that forces him to come to terms with his demons. A strikingly intense actor, Smallhorne possesses the animal sensuality of a young Brando. Flawed, with an often improbable plotline, his raw and risk-taking film is nevertheless clearly the outstanding new work in the series.
Three other recent films premiering here—Colin Villa’s Sunset Heights, John Davis’s The Uncle Jack, and Frank Stapleton’s The Fifth Province—make an uneven case for the New Irish Cinema. Villa’s debut film, the first Northern Irish feature fully financed in Ireland, is a futuristic saga set in a divided Derry ruled by rival gangs who unite to track down a pedophile child-killer. Simple-minded and crudely made, it’s a pretentious exploitation movie masquerading as political parable. With all the blarney deleted, Davis’s torpid doc about John McBride, his eccentric architect uncle who designed movie palaces in Northern Ireland, would have made a fine 10-minute short. And Province—a surreal fantasy about a shy writer and his shrink, too fey by half—is beautifully shot by cinematographer Brunode Keyser, but takes a complicated road to nowhere.