Mammal is Rebecca Daly’s first film since The Other Side of Sleep in 2012, a fractured and deceptive debut that promised much in the future. If that film asks questions about loneliness and memory, Mammal poses altogether more pressing questions. How numb do we have to be to accept strangers into our lives? How lonely and desperate for any kind of human connection are we to put our entire existence at risk? On a seemingly endless run of critical raves at the moment, we get another well-reviewed Irish film that played at Sundance; we could get used to this. But Brooklyn this is not. The rosy glow of nostalgia is absen there. The past hurts in Mammal, and the present is not much better. If this sounds like the type of miserabilist Irish film that had you running from the cinema in the past, it most assuredly is not. With Brooklyn and Room (amongst others), Ireland has proved that it can compete with films at the Hollywood top table. With Mammal we have a film that says adult Irish cinema has grown up. It can compete with the best of European arthouse cinema. If Mammal is the continuation of a trend in Irish cinema towards contemporary intelligent drama this is a very welcome trend indeed.
We are given just enough information at the beginning to piece together elements of Margaret’s (Rachel Griffiths) history. Her ex-partner Matt (Michael McElhatton) turns up with a worried face and a poster; their son is missing. We know that for some reason she walked away from being a mother. In true film fashion, we need to feel that there is a traditional movie reason for doing so. There is not, at least in the story Daly is telling. She seems to be saying that some women just don’t want to be mothers. No explanation or apology necessary. At a time where Waking the Feminists and Repeal the 8th are common currency in discussions both online and increasingly in the real world, this seems like quite a radical departure away from the traditional female lead. It is only when you stop and think about the idea of a woman taking decisions in her own life, such as leaving her family and entering a relationship with a much younger man, that you realise how rare this is seen onscreen
But there is guilt. A young man has just moved out of the spare room of her house. Before long Margaret finds the unconscious and badly beaten body of Joe (Barry Keoghan) behind her shop, and before long he moves into the spare room. Soon he is doing odd jobs like fixing the car (which belonged to the previous occupant of the spare room). The film raises interesting questions about Margaret and her relationship with Joe. Is he a replacement for the son she walked away from or for the husband who has just turned up with bad news, and now won’t leave her alone?
Water features heavily in Mammal. It has the ability to wash away whatever sins you feel you have and brings with it the potential for rebirth. A swimming pool becomes central, with characters hiding silently under water at points and with Margaret trying to teach Joe how to swim (that most parental of tasks). The household bath is where the water is muddied, with sexual urges drifting up alongside familial feelings. Her son has a water-related incident that takes this further into difficult territory. This all raises darker questions and Daly does not give easy or trite explanations for it.
Mammal is a major Irish film. The cast are excellent, with Griffiths and Keoghan working wonderfully together. Keoghan was also great in a small role in Traders earlier this year, and with this part he is surely destined to be an actor to be reckoned with for many years. The direction by Daly is deft and sure and she has terrific control of tone. Mammal adds a little too much plot in the final act which somewhat fractures the spell built up over the rest of the film. Still, its affecting tale and performances ensure it’s a film that will stay with you for a long time afterwards.