Director: Robert Manson Starring: Connor Madden, Jeanne Nicole Ní Áinle, Dermot Murphy Running Time: 89 minutes
When a film presents itself as more abstract and ambiguous, it could be considered a matter of good faith and good manners not to blithely assume that the interpretation you land on as a viewer is obviously and entirely the same one that the creators had. Robert Manson’s second feature Holy Island sees characters stranded on an Ireland of black and white, dead-end towns and hollow craic, but it would be way too simple to dismiss it as a self-hating screed against the homestead. A flexible, experimental, introspective, Holy Island should invite engaging interpretations. Whether it lends itself to eager recommendations is another matter.
Made for the Authored Works Scheme for the Arts Council, Holy Island takes the editorial leeway its afforded and runs with it, not so much presenting a set story, so much as a space on film to express artistic ideas. The island here is purgatorial; a dying dockland town, a narrow stretch of road that goes on forever and not long enough at the same time, an ever-present pub. David and Rosa are two lost souls trapped here, waiting for a ferry that might never come to save them. They navigate the town, characters and memories around them, trying to piece themselves back together, trying to see if they can find freedom in a place where time moves forwards, where their pasts don’t weigh them down, a place of warmth and colour – anywhere but the island. Again, that could be one way of looking at it. While parts of its plot and presentation may be alienating, the film has an earnest tone that keeps pretension at bay. There’s room for joy in its dead end town, notes of nostalgia in its wistful memories. Whatever you make of what Holy Island throws at you, there’s always a sincerity at the heart of it that keeps the film from going cold.
Manson plays around with plenty of ideas – weaving in melancholic Super 8 footage of old Ireland, shooting primarily in black and white, using dance, music, play-like dialogue. It’s thoughtful, playful, never as self-serious as arthouse films like this can seem from the outside, but it can present a challenge to the viewer in just how immersed to get. Watching long 70s reels of Irish fair grounds, will you grow somber or bored? Holy Island walks that line and even where it wobbles, you can respect the attempt.
One move that does work very well is casting David with two actors. Conor Madden starts playing the character as an older, more lost version, eventually tagging in Dermot Murphy as his younger self for a spell. It’s interesting to watch the gap in their performances, how age and experiences can softly shift your personality. Even better to watch is Jeanne Nicole Ní Áinle as Rosa. By far the most comfortable in Manson’s open-ended dialogue, she brings a warmth and charisma that keeps Holy Island from disappearing up its own backside. It may be more admirable than enjoyable, but if it keeps the playing field wide on what Irish film can be, if it sharpens tools in Manson’s arsenal, and if it lands casting agent eyes on the skills of Ní Áinle and co, it may be worth it all the same. Some may be lost at sea with this one, but Manson and co deserve credit for their lack of interest in smooth sailing.(3 / 5)
Holy Island is in Irish cinemas from 14th October 2022.