Dir.: Pat Collins; Cast: Colm Seoighe, Michael O’Conthoala, Macdara O’Fatharta, Jaren Cerf, Kate Nick Chonaonaigh; ROI/Canada 2017, 98 min.
Pat Collins’ portrait of Irish Dean Nos singer Joe Heaney (Seosamh O hEanai) is an exercise in displacement. Elliptically, and often enigmatically, we follow Heaney from the village of Carna on the west Coast of Ireland, where he was born in 1919, to his exile in the United States and Canada – from the mid 1960s until his death in 1984.
Biopics often fall short of our expectations due to endless Talking Heads sharing their own thoughts, but here Collins relies on sound and image to get his subject across, at it works. Heaney is played by three different actors: Colm Seoghe as a boy – by far the most impressive of the trio; Michael O’Conthoala in his forties and Macdara O’Fathharta as the ageing Heaney in his sixties. Heaney lived for a long time in isolation in Carna, he was only “discovered” by the public at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, after which he emigrated to New York. Collins does away with a narrative structure; long shots and many close-up framing of faces are mixed with static shots of landscapes, giving the feature the feeling of a daydream. Sometimes Collins switches to plain naturalism: when an ethnomusicologist visits Heaney’s village, his father sings into an ancient recoding machine, Collins arranges the scene with four villagers in framing his father, the background is made up by a two door-shaped crevice. The camera wanders from back- to foreground, creating a composition, which is conceptual perfect – but creates a feeling of distance. The same can be said for the shots in New York -actually filmed in Montreal: Heaney in his porter uniform, lonely in his basement flat, meeting another Irish musician and the introduction of two females, Rosie (Cerf) and Maire (Chonanonaigh), whose identity remains in the dark – as do many aspects of this docudrama. The Irish folk songs, liberally sprayed throughout, are taken in long takes, performed without instrumental accompaniment, are also part of the overall structure, creating a historical, almost anthropological style.
Whilst Collins aesthetic braveness should be applauded on the one hand, Heaney remains an elusive figure: his feeling of displacement in North America is underwhelmingly documented. We never get any nearer to who Heaney was. He is sucked into the structure of a film whose aesthetics are taken much more seriously than the character it aims to portray. Overall, this leaves a hollow feeling, almost like an idyllic picture postcard from a bygone era. AS
ON RELEASE FROM 15 DECEMBER 2017 NATIONWIDE