It is not an exaggeration to say that hopes were high for Gerard Barrett’s follow up to his very fine debut film Pilgrim Hill. Made on a shoestring, it was an excellent calling card, demonstrating that imagination, skill and vision are needed for filmmaking, with perhaps money a distant fourth. But with that initial success certain expectations arrive. We are in the ‘difficult’ second album territory, and there is pressure. With lions of Irish cinema like Neil Jordan and Jim Sheridan seemingly fading, the pressure is on young Irish filmmakers to step up and join Lenny Abrahamson on a bigger stage.”
The good news is that, with Glassland, Gerard Barrett has move to the forefront of the next generation of Irish filmmakers. Glassland tells the story of John (Jack Reynor), who works as a taxi driver in Dublin to earn money to try to keep his barely functioning family home afloat. His life is summed up in an opening trip to the kitchen and a depressing search for breakfast and implements with which to consume it; it’s almost blackly funny. Lurking in that home is his alcoholic mother Jean (Toni Collette), drinking herself to death. Meanwhile, John’s friend Shane (Will Poulter) is looking to get out of Ireland, and is working on getting John to go with him. Conditions deteriorate, and John is forced to realize how bad Jean really is. There seems to be hope in the form of Jim (Michael Smiley), who might be able to sort out a place in a clinic for his mother to get better. Further complicating the fractured family dynamic is the matter of John’s brother Kit (Harry Nagle) who has Down’s Syndrome and is in a care facility. What are the reasons that keep Jean from visiting? Soon, there is the question of money and John may have to make a phone call he doesn’t want to make.
Glassland is a film that is shrouded in the forlorn Ireland of the economic downturn. It is a grey film with the colour seemingly drained out of a beleaguered country. Alcoholism, extra jobs and very little money these are all the symptoms of a country in ruin and in denial. Barrett’s framing is crucial in showing this. There are close-ups of the ever worried John’s face, a seemingly-permanent frown. There is constant fretting when Jean leaves the house, as he’s unsure of her return and in what state. Something must give, and it does with two explosive scenes, with both Reynor and Collette doing superb work. For a film that is essentially quite still, the sudden rise in volume is frightening and never less than authentic. The heartbreaking reality of addiction is that it detonates the whole family and it is nearly impossible to put back together again. But one decision steers the film towards its unsettling conclusion.
There are a few niggles that take away from the film somewhat. The always great Michael Smiley is saddled with playing a facsimile of the Robin Williams character from Good Will Hunting, complete with understanding beard. In addition, the last act wraps up an unconvincing subplot that fails to add anything to the overall story. But for the most part, Glassland is a terrific drama with layers of domestic trauma visualized due to the economical way Barrett has with a script. The cinematography by Piers McGrail is wonderful, finding beauty in the non-cinematic area of Tallaght (Like buses, you wait ages for one to come along and then two appear.Tallaght also festures in this month’s also excellent I Used to Live Here).where none would seem to exist. Will Poulter is reliably excellent in a part that’s more than slight comic relief, which is sorely needed to shine a light amidst the darkness. But the film belongs to Reynor and Collette. They are terrific, with Collette’s accent also impressive. It is a wonderful two-hander aided by a script that, like Pilgrim Hill, says so much by saying so little. As a filmmaker and screenwriter, Barrett is the real deal. Like Abrahamson, we have every reason to see him at awards ceremonies over the next decade.