The Plot: Connemara, 1845. Colman (Donall O’Healai) is going through hard times. The potatoes feeding his family are subject to blight and his landlord Lieutenant (Michael McElhatton) is determined to raise rates even while his tenants are starving. The return of English-hating army deserter Patsy (Dara Devaney) has immediate consequences for them both, bringing them into a difficult confrontation with the landlord. Colman will have to decide whether he has enough to live for in these bleak times…
The Verdict: Famine-set drama Arracht or Monster has been waiting in the wings for a while, having originally been set for release in spring 2020. A different crisis intervened. Then it resurfaced a few weeks ago when it made headlines. It has been optioned for an American remake by a producer who has worked with Kathryn Bigelow on a number of films including The Hurt Locker. How a specific Irish-set film shot mostly in Gaelic can translate to the frontier west of America remains to be seen, but there some possible pointers in the style of its execution. There is a vaguely western-style set-up, but it’s mostly submerged in its moodiness as it sets out to be an atmospheric reflection on loss, suffering, murder and the road back to redemption. Black 47 this isn’t. It’s a thinkpiece that requires attention and some level of patience to get onboard with it.
First-time feature writer/director Tom Sullivan focuses his story on Colman, a desperate family man driven by a strong sense of injustice as he watches those around him suffer through the Great Famine. A spiraling series of events in the first act leads to a more reflective second act as Colman comes to terms with his actions, reconnecting with his humanity through contact with young girl Kitty (Saise Ni Chuinn). Two lost souls on a road to nowhere, but yet they find a common bond. The third act brings the story full circle, with food for thought on Colman’s conscience. With minimal dialogue, Sullivan and his lead actor Donall O’Healai portray the desperation, frustration and dark thoughts of this ‘monster’ in a humane fashion. When a man is pushed to the edge of his wits and conscience, he has to act but also deal with the fallout. The film is at its strongest when O’Healai is onscreen, holding one’s attention with his character’s urgent plight.
The film is less successful in its glacial story progression, moving along at a somewhat dreary, unhurried pace as Colman confronts his past. The supporting characters are thinly-written too, of whom only Kitty makes any real impact. This is not some cosy, feelgood story of a wise child teaching a troubled adult how to live again. The film is too lean in its narrative and lacking any real meat on its starved bones for that to be considered. What it does successfully though is evoke the time period well, the wild west of Connemara looking simultaneously beautiful and harshly unforgiving to its impoverished characters. Colman reflects that the Great Famine was done to us, through political neglect and lack of compassion. It’s not all doom and gloom though. There is a sliver of hope running through the film. Irish language films are few and far between, so this one marks out its territory on its own terms. Arracht is a chilly, atmospheric film and a commendable first effort.
Rating: 3 / 5
Review by Gareth O’Connor
In short: Chilly
Directed by Tom Sullivan.
Starring Donall O'Healai, Saise Ni Chuinn, Dara Devaney, Michael McElhatton, Peter Coonan.