Director: Tomás Ó Súilleabháin Starring: Dónall Ó Héalai, Saise Ní Chuinn, Dara Devaney Running Time: 86 minutes
“This was done to us” someone says of the Famine at one point in Arracht, and taking that fact as a given is the jumping off point for the ideas that director Tomás Ó Súilleabháin has on his mind in directing this take on Ireland’s history. Taking the Famine as directly driven by British imperialism as opposed to an unfortunate potato happenstance isn’t mere political point scoring, like Black 47 it allows for a more personal, character-driven story to be unfurled in response to the act. Genocide is ultimately and emphatically dehumanising, and Arracht, meaning ‘monster’, is a story of what becomes of those who have what was done to us, well, done to them.
Arracht is firmly framed around the performance of lead actor Dónall Ó Héalai as Colmán Ó Searcaigh, who runs a simple family business selling crops and poitin off the west coast, enjoying life with his wife and young son, a pillar of the community liked and respected enough to attempt a word about rising rents in the ear of the local landlord (played by Michael McElhatton, sneeringly clueless). Ó Héalai has to have the noble everyman quality to carry Arracht’s point, reasonable the better to show other’s lack of reason, but he also has to have the quality to carry the actual film, presence and dignity, a believable person that the characters around him would look up or down to. Think Harrison Ford in The Fugitive , Ó Héalai is in a more serious story but has the similar balance to portray a reasonable man twisted to the end of his tether, and not just because he’s also playing someone framed for a crime he didn’t commit.
Colmán is stuck working with army deserter Patsy, whose volatile nature leads to disaster right as the potato blight is hitting the area. With Colmán catching the blame for Patsy’s crimes, he’s forced out of local society, and when the Famine claims his family, we see the personal toll it takes. There’s a clever synergy at play telling a “crime he didn’t commit” story in the middle of this historical event, highlighting the bigger crime, whose actual perpetrators are at no risk of facing the consequences. Ó Héalai is gaunt to show the effects of the Famine on his character, living in a cave and living on scraps. It’s a lot, especially since Ó Héalai shows his character physically in other ways, hunched, animalistically skittish, as if barely trusting his own voice and movements. His bony shoulders are, deliberately, in danger of being lost in the camera, another sorry sight among grey skies and dilapidated houses. But the narrative takes a shift, which though unusual puts the focus back on the stories character and not his condition.
Colmán finds himself caring for an orphaned young girl Kitty, played by Saise Ni Chuinn. The story takes on a Lone Wolf and Cub style focus, developing their relationship, Colmán teaching his new ward survival skills and finding himself again through bonding with another. It works well, preventing Arracht from tipping into pure misery and adding more dimension. It helps that Ni Chuinn is a strong performer herself, commanding and confident, ensuring that watching Kitty and Colmán develop onscreen is dynamic and engaging. It change in focus can be jarring though, a different story arriving after a time skip, and the way that Arracht tries to tie it all together is structurally bumpy, something that would be a lot harder to take without the strong performances. It’s a film with a wide focus, and while the parts don’t always come together to capture it, there’s a lot to admire and the ambitions are fulfilled in being suitably stirring. There has been talk of Arracht being remade for a fully English language version, but it’s hard to imagine. When you hear these actors and the performances that they give in Irish, it drives home the cultural context that would be lost as Bearla. Another part of Ireland washed away on the coast, and another sign perhaps of how cruel the fingers of the real monsters curled around our country.(3.5 / 5)