Early 1920’s Ireland and the War of Independence is taking hold around the country. Against this backdrop the events of A Nightingale Falling take place. Based on the novel of the same name by PJ Curtis, the film sees two sisters leaving in a rural country house attempting to keep the affairs of their estate in order. When a Black and Tan soldier is found wounded on their property it sets in motion a chain of events that will lead the pair downa path of secrecy, torment, love and loss.
Period dramas can live or die on the strength of the acting, and by placing the film’s fate firmly in the hands of Tara Breathnach the directors risked quite a bit. Thankfully the gamble paid off as Breathnach is wonderful in the lead, giving Mae a clearly defined character, a strong emotional core, and a heart-breaking elegance. Her performance elevates those around her, giving the others a base to work from. Muireann Bird, as her sister Tilly is the main recipient, taking a very slight and stage-like character and giving her a bit more nuance and life. Gerard McCarthy is fine as the leading man, but never truly bonds with either sister, leading him to feel distant. As the story is more interesting when it’s the tale of two sisters this distance doesn’t have a detrimental impact on the film, but does leave it lacking something that could have truly elevated it.
From a technical standpoint A Nightingale Falling is an exceptional looking film. What co-directors Garret Daly and Martina McGlynn have accomplished with the visual aesthetic of the film belies its low-budget independent roots. The cinematography and colour palette instantly ground the film in its period, and allow for the actors to take centre-stage. There’s a notable and note-worthy restraint in both the movement of the camera, and in the way that the drama is allowed to unfurl. Some will criticise the slow pacing or the film’s 110 minute run-time, but this film is interesting right until the last frame and the pacing allows the target audience a chance to envelope themselves in the film. Period dramas by their very nature have a particular type of audience and this film should find favour with that audience. All that being said this is by no means a perfect period drama. The film suffers from some characterisation issues, with character motivations and intentions unclear or implausible. The culprit is the notion that an able-bodied soldier, once recovered from his wounds, would not attempt to at least sneak out of the home of his captors/carers (even allowing for Stockholm syndrome). There is also issues with some of the dialogue, which seems hokey and unrealistic even for the period. The film has a majestic score, composed by Graeme Stewart and recorded by the Ulster Orchestra, that works beautifully with the visuals. It is a little over-used in parts but serves its purpose in enhancing the drama.
A Nightingale Falling is a fine film, and a testament to what can be achieved on a small budget. It is seriously impressive looking, with superb performances, especially from Tara Breathnach, and should be a staple RTÉ Sunday evening type drama for years to come.