If you have the (mis)fortune of following this writer on Twitter or if you had read his blog on Irish film, you would know how not a chance is missed to tell everyone about Ivan Kavanagh’s superlative Tin Can Man. Despite a small budget, It is beautifully shot in black and white and comes complete with a deranged sensibility. Kavanagh displays the confidence of a filmmaker who is in serious control of his talent. There are moments of brilliance throughout; you should try and get a copy of it and watch. It is a world away from his earlier Bergmanesque features. All of this serves to say that there wasn’t a person more looking forward to Ivan Kavanagh’s new film The Canal. Praised at so many festivals around the world, it has finally come home for a cinema release. Crushingly, The Canal just isn’t the film it could have been. All the ingredients are there, but for the first time Kavanagh seems to be unsure about what to do with them.
The Canal stars Rupert Evans as David, a film archivist living (possibly) in Dublin. The opening scene sees him showing old footage to a bunch of bored-looking teenagers. This is smart, as filmmakers are faced now with the idea that nothing really shocks a modern young audience. Alas, this is not explored in any real way. Later, David receives some film footage, which seems to show a disturbing murder from 1902. Thus, when we see David and his pregnant wife Alice (Hannah Hoekstra) buying a house beside a canal, we know that this house may some bearing on said footage. In true horror tradition, the murder took place in the house and the discovery of the footage seems to have awoken something there. We cut to five years later and the family now includes 5-year-old Billy (Calum Heath) and a young nanny (Kelly Byrne). David starts to think his wife is having an affair. The result of this increasing paranoia brings him under police investigation.
The film begins as a drama, with only the occasional disturbance that moves it into horror territory. This is fine if the story is strong enough, and if you can keep your audience intrigued by the unfolding drama. Alas this is not the case, and the film feels quite generic. This in turn has a delaying effect, which gives the film a restless feel while we wait for the impending horror to arrive. The story will be very familiar to anyone who has been keeping up with horror trends over the last few years. For the most part this is where the problems arise. Referencing ideas that appeared in films such as Sinister and The Ring is fine if you can put your own spin on them. But it is here that it feels like Kavanagh is trapped between his own sensibility and the demands of the genre. There is too much of the latter and not nearly enough of the former. The only part of the film that truly feels like it belongs to the same director of Tin Can Man is the terrific sound design. It is here that Kavanagh can make the film feel a little more than the sum of its parts, but it is not quite enough.
The cast do their best, but it has the feeling of a European co-production (varied accents, unspecific location) which can result in performances being a little uneven. Evans is fine in the lead role and Steve Oram plays investigating cop McNamara with just the right amount of cynicism. The cinematography, from one of Ireland’s rising stars Piers McGrail is excellent, adding a moody and grey palette to the proceedings. But the film just doesn’t do enough to stand out from a list of so-so horrors that have come along in the last few years. There is no doubt that Ivan Kavanagh will produce some excellent films in the future; he has too much talent not to. But The Canal feels like there has been too much compromise to please fans of the genre. It doesn’t feel idiosyncratic enough, which is strange when it comes to a filmmaker like Kavanagh who has an excellent cinematic voice. This critic will await the next film with baited breath, in hope of a return to form.