Trawling through my hard drive in search of an errant fiction file, I came across my original “Trainspotting” review, done this month 21 years ago for one or other of the New York publications at the time …
Currently not so much a film as a phenomenon, “Trainspotting” has been preceded by a blast of mega-hype reaching all the way across the Atlantic. Do you have to see it? Do you really? Well, read on…
Based on the novel by Scottish writer Irvine Welsh (who also wrote “The Acid House”), the book meanders in and around of the lives of the post-punk, no-future generation of unemployed Edinburgh youths enmeshed in heroine addiction, not unlike many in our other favourite post-colonial city, Dublin.
For all the hype, though, it grossed $15 million, more than any other Scottish film. Made by director Danny Boyle, screenwriter John Hodge and producer Andrew McDonald (who made “Shallow Grave”, released last year), it deals with heroine addiction, AIDS, unemployment and poverty. But it also delivers a full-blast infusion of the lust for life that any gang of twenty-somethings will have in any city.
Taking no prisoners, it’s an honest, brilliant and devastating take on a very real part of urban life, managing to deliver that world faithfully – with all its gallows humor and its highs and lows.
If the book is one of the best ever penned about about heroine addiction, the film follows suit. Because while anybody watching the film will work out that heroine is an evil that consumes its victims continuously and relentlessly, you see that the characters, to put it in their own words, “aren’t stupid” – they do it because of the sheer pleasure. They have fun, they are rebels, they care nothing for the society that has provided them with nothing, they run around committing small-time robberies, organizing scams and petty deals to fund their habits, and they do their drugs. Addiction is set out on the screen with no frills, no excuses. It’s comparable in grit to Gus Van Sant’s “Drugstore Cowboy”, although for sheer scatological detail “Trainspotting” is more harrowing.
Renton, Spud, Sick Boy, Begby and the others know no pain when they are on smack, they have no everyday worries, no bills, no problems, no rent, no emotional hassles – everything in their lives is solved and sugared by this incredible substance. And yet everything in their lives is at the same time reduced to a vile lowest common denominator, as when one squat mate’s baby dies of neglect in its cot, and all the mother can think of doing is banging up another hit of smack. Or when Tommy, the only one in the crowd who remained outside the game, finally joins in and falls faster than any of them.
The controversy surrounding “Trainspotting” in England and Ireland is centred on whether this film “glorifies” drugs. This is fairly typical of the Irish and British authorities, who seem to get more worked up about peripherals than actually getting down and dealing with the everyday challenges of their gang-strangled streets. Recently the Irish government sent 500 of their policemen up to the Northern Ireland border to save the Republic from the illegal crossings of potentially “mad” cows, while journalist Veronica Guerin was gunned to bits in Dublin city by drug lords. With an estimated 10,000 heroine addicts in Dublin alone, how worrying can one film about drugs be?
Take “Trainspotting” as you like. See it to get a bloody hard look at a problem that is widespread in Irish and Scottish society today. See it for its spectacularly stylish cinematic qualities or its fabulous soundtrack. See it for Ewan McGregor’s grin, for Spud’s glasses, for Kelly McDonald’s demented school uniform, see it to have a good laugh – or see it and weep. But see it.
Senator Tom Hayden once pointed out that one of the reasons why traditional Irish American culture tends towards the light and aery sentimentalism of chuckling leprechauns and rustic simplicity, is not because our history is cheery and uncomplicated, but rather the opposite.
The original stories of many who reached the New World from Ireland have been simply too full of horror to tell. Their sadness and hardship was quickly replaced by a selective memory process that eventually led to the quaint, cute or rambunctious stage and screen Irish images we have come to know.
This resulting mythology is often more interesting for what it conceals than what it shows. As with the old John Cleese joke, “don’t talk about the war”, the true experience of immigrants was frequently silenced for the following generations, and it often takes a long time for realities to be faced, or even discovered.
This is My Father is about such a discovery, and is simply one of the best Irish American films ever. Its powerful exploration of the kind of social and religious constraints that often drove people away from Ireland, its heartfelt portrayal of real Irish people in an accurate, unsentimentalized setting, and its capacity for humor as well as pathos, make it an exceptional work. It’s story will be especially poignant for Irish American viewers, but is universal enough in its theme and treatment to appeal to any movie goer.
While the film is a striking directorial debut from Paul Quinn, its also somewhat of a family collaboration. The lead is played by Paul’s brother, the actor Aidan Quinn (Legends of the Fall, Benny & Joon, Michael Collins), his sister Marion (I Shot Andy Warhol, 2×4), features in a smaller role, and the cinematographer Declan Quinn (Leaving Las Vegas, The Ballad of Little Jo). Its strong cast includes such distinguished actors as Donal Donnally, James Caan, Moira Deady, John Cusack, Stephen Rea, Gina Moxley, Colm Meaney and Brendan Gleeson (recently seen in The General), and the film boasts a memorable soundtrack from Master Irish musician Donal Lunny.
The story begins in Chicago, when Kieran Jr. (James Caan), finds himself in a genuine crisis of identity. His mother Fiona, who arrived in America pregnant just before the outbreak of World War II, never told him who his father was. Having now suffered a stroke, she is unable to communicate any longer with her family. Kieran is a schoolteacher in a modest suburban school, whose life lacks context and purpose. When a homework task he assigns his students coincides with the unearthing of an old family photo revealing a man who might possibly be his father, he heads back to Ireland with his nephew, Jack (Jacob Tierney), in search of the truth.
When Jack and Kieran arrive in Ireland, their B&B is run by Seamus (Colm Meaney in a truly flamboyant role!) and his mother, Mrs Kearney. Initially faced with a blank wall from locals in the village, Kieran can only learn the tale under the auspices of Mrs. Kearney’s “fortune telling” sessions. It is through these that we learn the tale of young Fiona and her first love, Kieran.
Fiona (Moya Farrelly) is a bright, gorgeous girl with a lust for life that burns brightly despite the odds. Her mother is a domineering, bitter and snobbish widow – the only woman in the village with a car. Having taken to the drink after her husband’s death, she is determined that no romance will blossom between her daughter and the lowly Kieran, played by Aidan Quinn.
Quinn gives a stunning performance. Fiona’s unlikely suitor is a “poor house bastard” who cuts turf for his stepparents and is regarded generally in the locality as the village idiot. He is deeply religious, but his love for her is unquenchable – even in the face of opposition from the widow (Gina Moxley) and the all-powerful local parish priest (Eamonn Morrissey). Quinn put on thirty pounds for the role, and his metamorphosis into a painfully shy, rural batchelor who is overwhelmed at Fiona’s attentions, is nothing short of brilliant. He manages to evince the gentle soul inside the “outsider” and gives such a touching performance, that many of the audience (including the male contingent) were moved to quiet tears by the end of the film.
Moya Farrelly also gives a splendid performance. Finally – we see a strong Irish woman on the big screen that does not fit into the “feisty redhead” stereotype. She is a naturally sexy and outspoken girl whose place in society prohibits a passion as strong as her love for Kieran, and her departure for America at the end of the film is no surprise.
It is to director/writer Paul Quinn’s credit that a film entitled This Is My Father is as much about the mother in the family as well as the father. Notable too, is that while the film flashbacks are set at the end of the 1930s, the contemporary scenes really are contemporary Ireland – not just more Hollywood-Irish romanticism. Quinn, as an Irish American who has spent two separate sojourns in Ireland as a child, is well able to address the past, but has his feet planted firmly in the present. One looks forward to his future work, and hopefully we’ll see more Irish and Irish American films of this calibre gracing our screens over the next couple of years.
Having celebrated its East Coast premiere at the First Annual New York Film Fleadh last month, This Is My Father opens in May at theaters around the U.S.
* Posted on what would have been the 57th birthday of the director of the film director, Paul Quinn, RIP
Remember Dublin in the early 70s? When it looked more like Dresden in 1945? No? Well, here’s a city walkabout done by my father and his friend Brendan Halligan, shot by Val Ennis with Helen Mulkerns assisting with locations. It’ll be coming out in a new limited edition DVD in 2015, for its 40th Anniversary, but meantime – check it out, as well as the the haunting new soundtrack by Josh Johnston …
Today is not Father’s Day, but I always think of my father at Easter. He hated Father’s Day with a particularly venomous passion anyway, just like he hated any crap Hallmark holiday manufactured to make people buy stupid cards and pretend we’re all happy as Larry. My father was not Larry. He was an artist, and a flawed romantic. He could make really excellent case for being a witty, boozy, happy go lucky raconteur, and a lot of the time that’s what he was, too.
He was a deeply sentimental man at times as well, who loved dogs and cats and old movies – and he was madly and utterly in love with my mother all his life. But it was the spaces in between, sometimes pretty dark, that made him both interesting, heart breaking and a man who ended up that figure that Joni Mitchell described so well when she wrote, “all romantics meet the same fate … “
I think of him at Easter because potentially, it’s an opportunity to have one of those “Happy Family” occasions, although in our house certainly not much to do with Jesus, whom my father had interesting respect for, despite hating the Catholic church. Easter 2003 I was studying in NUIG, and instead of joining my parents for Sunday dinner, I chose to stay down in Galway and study. Whatever. Eight days later my father was dead, and so while we probably wouldn’t have had a Hallmark Easter holiday, we might have shared a drink for the road … (more…)
Once upon a time there was a little girl … she read her Santa letter on Irish national television, while a camera followed her as she walked around Henry Street, Dublin 1 – the street famous for its Christmas market and street decorations. The interviewer was Frank Hall. Years later, having found the archive clip, RTE producer Seán O’Mealóid, decided to locate the child. The call went out for several years in a row, until it was issued on the radio programme, “Liveline” and through a friend, the girl heard about the find “The Santa Girl” project. Here’s the clip –
The full programme can be seen on the RTE Player HERE