The Plot: Ireland, 2018. Three women from different walks of life receive letters confirming that they are clear of cervical cancer. Single mother Sam (Mary Murray) is under pressure from loan sharks. Cliona (Sarah Carroll) is a career-driven autistic woman who lives a lonely existence. Mary (Kathleen Warner Yeates) cares for her aging mother Bridget (Ann Russell), who has late-stage Alzheimer’s. Within weeks, the three women start to deteriorate fast and call into question the authenticity of their results…
The Verdict: Looking for a film to send shivers down your spine this Hallowe’en? Look no further than new homegrown film The Letters. It’s not a horror film though. The story and events that take place are horrific enough to send you out of the cinema afterwards in righteous anger, ready to re-start a discussion about what just happened. It’s based on the Cervical Check scandal that rocked the country a few years ago, which gave affected women like Vicky Phelan a potential death sentence based on hidden false results. The Letters comes with a disclaimer at the start that the characters are fictional (and so also is the National Health Centre, which comes into focus). However, it’s also based to some degree on the real-life unfolding scandal as the story plays out over the affected lives of three women at different stages in their lives.
It’s a bold narrative to pursue for one-man show Robbie Walsh. Not only does he write and direct but he also produces, stars and operates the camera too. That takes some determination, but it’s obvious from the early moments that Walsh is keen to get his film out there and get people talking about it. He’s picked a worthy subject to zero in on, tracking the deteriorating conditions of three women with cervical cancer as the horror of their situation gradually dawns on them, facing into a bleak future. Walsh’s script doesn’t hold back on the dark stuff, so be prepared for some hard-hitting scenes. Without them though, the film wouldn’t be as indignant about these women dealt an unjust hard blow by the powers-that-be. And yet, there are moments of beauty and light which give hope. It’s that delicate balance that Walsh manages to pull off without being off-putting.
He’s aided in no small part by his lead actors, who really hit it out of the park with their performances. They’re pitched at just the right level without coming across as attention-grabbing – the heartbreaking Mary Murray in particular. Walsh shows an ability to be both low-key in his filmmaking style and simultaneously righteous. If there’s one misstep here, it’s the scene with the health minister (Walsh as a late stand-in) and his assistant, as they coldly and casually bully Cliona into silence while commenting on trivial matters like the quality of tea and cupcakes. It’s a skin-crawling scene, but it sits uncomfortably in the overall framework of the film. Walsh has said that he’s not pursuing a political narrative as a filmmaker, but the scene sticks out when the rest of the film is humanely focused on the effects of the scandal. It’s enough to suggest it rather than show it, bare-faced and all.
The Letters draws to a conclusion with a dying swan effect, but it’s done so artistically with changes in colour and with dramatic purpose. Mixing in sound bites from real affected women and opening / closing titles that set the scene, it’s a quietly angry film that drives home its message: let’s make sure this doesn’t happen again. Fair play to Walsh for getting this small, independently-made and self-distributed Irish film into multiplexes which are currently overrun with screen-gobbling blockbusters. It certainly merits attention.
Rating: 3.5 / 5
Review by Gareth O’Connor
In short: Quietly angry
Directed by Robbie Walsh.
Starring Mary Murray, Sarah Carroll, Kathleen Warner Yeates, Ann Russell, John Connors.