A walk through a scandal in Ann

Director: Ciaran Creagh Starring: Zara Devlin, Eileen Walsh, Ian Beattie, Senna O’Hara, Frank O’Sullivan, Joe Mullins and Sean T. O’Meallaigh Running Time: 100 minutes

It’s an important endeavour to use art to try and reckon with your country’s past, particularly when your country is intent on ignoring it. For decades Ireland’s attitude to abortion was allowed to be fogged in secrecy and shame, misinformation and mismanagement, the pain which that caused is worth remembering and reflecting on, especially at a time when our Taoiseach voices his “reluctance” to make further reforms. 

Dramatising the final hours in the life of Ann Lovett, the 15-year old girl who died in childbirth in a grotto in Granard in 1984, Ciaran Creagh’s feature Ann aims to replay an injustice, to look again at a story that shook Ireland, and see what insights emerge. 

It takes us some time to see Ann’s face. We follow her through her Longford home, changing her sheets, sneaking past parents, setting up notes under her bed, mechanical movements played as though they’ve been rehearsed in the head over and over. The stationary camera and the recognisably plain set design make the scene look like just another day in the life, while the audience knows that it’s Ann’s last day. The camera follows behind as she moves through Granard, avoiding adults, enduring pains – Ann herself is an elusive figure though, as we go around the town also, following the timeline of her mother, sister, dad, various villagers, establishing the scene, and the sense of foreboding. 

Creagh’s camera most often follows characters from behind. As Ann and others make their way around, the view sticks closely behind the shoulder, it gives a sense of confinement. It also familiarises the viewer with the geography of Granard (though the film itself was shot in Boyle, Co Roscommon) – the repeated trajectories of Ann, her mother and others lets us know what locations are in relation to each other, how close the grotto is to the school, the GP’s office, the Lovett home. This setup and style, near re-enactment, is understandable and effective, but there is something of a clash with other aspects of the presentation. Performances and dialogue are more emotionally open; broad, leading, theatrical. When characters pointedly repeat post-tragedy “why didn’t she ask for help?”, the realistic staging and dramatic performing can jarr. 

Which is not to say, at all, that the performances are unworthy. As Ann, Zara Devitt has a difficult task which she handles exceptionally. Ann is near silent when we see her, when she finally speaks at length with a friend, the normalcy of it hits all the harder; wryly pleased at ducking the principle, casually borrowing a smoke, clearly weary but brushing it off. The contrast between the ordinary half-day Ann’s mother, father and sister experience, and the painful, personal horror that follows, is well performed by Eileen Walsh, Ian Beattie, Senna O’Hara. It’s a story that can’t help but affect Irish viewers emotionally, but all three do the work to create that place, the uncertainty of the sister, the vague bad feeling in Walsh that curdles into something worse and worse, the too late, unmeasured, ugly grieving by Beattie. Their grief, and the central scenes in the grotto which Ann shows, carefully but confrontationally, recentre this story from the infamous Sunday Tribune headline “Girl, 15, Dies Giving Birth In A Field”, and back onto the emotions that it provoked.

There are limits to the kind of reflection a film like Ann can provide. As it ponders the questions that emerge from that day, it sometimes does so too pointedly; a retired garda character wandering the town providing a clumsy presence to a story that doesn’t need it. Its efforts are otherwise well-handled though, and a lot of thought has clearly gone in to how to approach the final day of Ann’s life respectfully, and meaningfully. The silence and stigma hangs over the quiet town streets as shot by Creagh, the hand of the Church is omnipresent, hesitant and unhelpful. Devitt and Walsh especially are graciously grave, emotive, empathetic presences. Ireland failed Ann Lovett, and many others. The real question Ann asks is the right one: When will we provide help to those who need it, without them having to ask in the form of tragedy?

3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)

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