Finding the beauty of Loss, Longing and Longford in Lakelands

Directors: Robert Higgins and Patrick McGivney  Starring: Éanna Hardwicke, Danielle Galligan, Gary Lydon, Dafhyd Flynn, Lorcan Cranitch Running Time: 100 minutes

“How are things?” “Ah grand, you know yourself”. It is reflexively ingrained in the Irish psyche to answer this way, to parry enquiries after us with airy, empty assurances. It’s not even a question of hiding that something is wrong, often before it even gets that conscious we’re unthinkingly replying with delusions of grand-sure, bothering somebody else with your troubles being even harder to contemplate than admitting them to yourself. In Lakelands, a character catching themselves doing this and clarifying that things are pretty shite actually, represents a genuine, effective and emotional breakthrough. It’s one moment of many that shows this Longford-grown drama sensationally recreate the mindset of the Midlands and beyond, and the freedom that can be found in embracing your own vulnerability.

The film, nominated for several upcoming IFTAs including Best Film, Actor and Actress, is the debut feature from directors Robert Higgins and Patrick McGivney and sees them tackling the invalidating vaccums that can emerge when our identities are challenged. Lakelands focuses on Cian, a young farmer and Gaelic footballer who is struggling to come to terms with a severe head injury after being attacked on a night out. Cian is struggling on the farm, pained, strained and unfocused, much to the ire of his dad. It’s worse out on the pitch, Cian has tied his identity firmly to being part of the club and being able to get out and play but it’s looking like he’ll have to retire for his own wellbeing. Without work to keep tipping over and matches (and pints, and joints) with the lads at the weekend, what purpose is there to be had for a lonely lad of Longford? How much longer can he ignore the signs his body is sending him, and who will he push away to avoid help? As the film’s lead, rising star Éanna Hardwicke carries the weight of those questions, a man equally anxious about the answers as he is about the possibility of anyone asking.

Meanwhile, Cian isn’t the only one going through it. His Debs date from back in the day Grace is back in town, over from the bustle of nursing in London to help look after her ailing father. Played by Danielle Galligan, Grace puts up a brave face in front of the same old “how long are ya over for” questions and pints with people she has nothing in common with anymore, all while enduring the stress of caring, alone, for her dad in what are likely his final weeks. Galligan’s warm smile has just enough strain behind it, but it comes a little easier as she rekindles a friendship with Cian, who reaches out to her quietly for advice about the headaches, dizziness and unease he’s had since his injury.

That Grace is clear from the outset that she’s got a fella back in England, and that Cian is understanding and respectful of that boundary while still feeling himself bumping against it, allows Hardwicke and Galligan to develop a deep and intriguing chemistry, a bond that feels complex but mutually understood, sudden and circumstantial but unmistakably genuine.

Talk just flows easier between them, from casual banter to deeper and darker topics, and between the nuanced writing and the performances the pair give, we see the Irish impulse to brush off feelings built up and broken down. Galligan plays a woman very sure of herself straining in an uncertain situation, lit up with gratitude for the friendship and support she’s given, rightly righteously pushing back when Cian’s bitterness gets the better of him. It makes for one of the most delicate, detailed pairings in an Irish feature in some time.

As a decent but directionless country lad, Hardwicke is playing a character familiar to Irish audiences, but the actor’s unusual presence – seen elsewhere this year in Sinead O’Laughlin’s award winning short Lamb – perfectly fits the more complicated needs of the performance. Cian is a sensitive lad, a subplot of him caring for an ailing cow shows his decency when no one is looking, but he burdens himself unnecessarily, taking on expectations unasked, uncertain how else to fit in his community. Tall, kind-eyed but imposing, it’s hard to know what Hardwicke will do next in a scene, so when he fights with friends, darkly looks for revenge against his attackers or otherwise retreats into himself, his actions have an impact. Likewise when he gets upset, his large frame wilting, the actor shows a great ability to break the audience’s hearts. A breakdown in front of his seemingly closed-off dad (Lorcan Cranitch), ugly tears spewing on the midnight kitchen floor, will resonate with anyone who’s hidden that emotion from their parents until they physically can’t anymore.

The pair of directors give Longford life through early morning lighting of fields and just noisy enough town streets at night. We understand the sense of place it provides Cian, the chats in the changing rooms, the laughs down the pub, the peace among the cows on the farm, and we understand what he fears losing as a side effect of his concussion, what he fears it will distance him from. Cian’s contentment with home is clear, and when he takes Grace to a quiet spot by the lake, a former favourite of his own mother, we understand clearly the serenity that’s at stake for him. Similarly, we see it offer Grace a small moment of respite, but only temporarily. She needs the new life she’s made for herself, and the way the film handles what the county means to both characters, good memories and bad, neither proven wrong, is one of many ways the film approaches the relationship between its leads with assured writing, careful nuance and emotional intelligence.

Hardwicke and Galligan both are sensational in this emotional, measured and mature homegrown drama. It’s an essential mix of new and old approaches to this kind of story, Rooney-esque anxieties and David Lean style longing. It’s a film in the heart of the island with plenty of heart to spare, an introduction to new stars and new insights into particular Irish sides of loneliness and uncertainty.

4.5 out of 5 stars (4.5 / 5)

Lakelands is in select Irish cinemas from Friday 5th May.

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