Director: Thaddeus O’Sullivan Starring: Tom Vaughan-Lawlor Running Time: 81 minutes
In picking out names from late 19th-early 20th century Ireland, a time when as George Moore put it, “The sceptre of intelligence moved from London to Dublin”, art collector Hugh Lane may not be the first one that comes to mind. It may not come to mind at all if you’re not a major arts enthusiast. However, the innovative and very interesting Citizen Lane paints a vivid picture of the man as an enigmatic character from a period in Irish history packed full of fascinating figures. Look past the naff title, this unusual mix of documentary and narrative is likely to draw a high appraisal from those who view it.
Directed by Irish veteran Thaddeus O’Sullivan (December Bride, Ordinary Decent Criminal and more), Citizen Lane is a blend of talking head interviews with contemporary experts, staged ‘interviews’ with some of the social movers of Lane’s day and scenes playing out like a conventional biopic, with Tom Vaughan-Lawlor playing the part of the art dealer, collector and gallery director. Dublin’s own Vaughan-Lawlor’s star is rapidly rising via a turn of sinister smarm in Infinity War and the arrival of Maze to Netflix, and the actor excels in the part, a lovable fusspot, a man you can understand instantly why so many of his contemporaries considered so warmly and yet sometimes found so irritating. Lane’s love of art above all shines through, sometimes to the point of tunnel vision in dealing with people, but it’s an infectious appreciation.
The film lays out Lane’s time of prominence in Irish culture, his establishing of the first known public gallery of modern art in the heart of Dublin, clashes with the Dublin Corporation and the controversial disputes with the National Gallery that have rumbled since his death, all placed in the context of a moment in Irish history, with the Revival, lockouts, rumbling nationalism and more all woven throughout. It ties together more neatly in some moments than others, some of the narrative scenes have an air of “Irish history’s greatest hits” as Yeats, Lady Gregory, Synge et al pop in for appearances, occasionally awkward but in fairness, these people really did know each other.
71 years old and still working regularly, it’s heartening to see O’Sullivan try something experimental as far as documentary storytelling goes – it’s a relative risk to include scenes that easily curdle into cheese and though Citizen Lane sometimes feels like two different kinds of film about the same man edited together, it is helpful to ‘see’ Lane, it aids in the understanding of the man that the more conventional doc elements provide. That’s down to the talents, not only of the leading man, but of the writer Mark O’Halloran, who scripted the narrative parts. O’Halloran brings the same heart that’s found in previous films like Adam & Paul and Garage, empathetically bringing out the loneliness in Lane and illuminating a passion for art that doesn’t come from an artist, something not often seen in cinema. Educational and charming, Citizen Lane is the latest in a long line of quality Irish documentaries.(3.5 / 5)