Monday 16 January 2017

Pursuit review: 'The script is tense and the acting is excellent across the board'

Published 20/03/2016 | 22:00

Liam Cunningham as 'Fionn'. Photo: TV3
Liam Cunningham as 'Fionn'. Photo: TV3
Liam Cunningham as 'Fionn'. Photo: TV3
Barry Ward as 'Diarmuid'. Photo: TV3
Barry Ward as 'Diarmuid'. Photo: TV3
Brendan Gleeson as 'Searbhan'. Photo: TV3
Ruth Bradley as 'Grainne'. Photo: TV3

It’s surprising that the Celtic legend Tóraíocht Dhiarmada agus Gráinne (The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Gráinne) hasn’t been adapted or updated for the screen before.

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It’s an absolutely cracking story, containing all the elements of great drama: love and death, loyalty and betrayal, family and violence (at times intertwined with each other). You’ve got the flawed hero/anti-hero Fionn MacCumhaill, the titular star-crossed lovers, shifting allegiances and power plays, intimate stories tangled up in broader, deeper narratives.

Pursuit, tonight’s feature-length drama on TV3, was a long-overdue modern retelling of the legend. It was written and directed by Paul Mercier, himself a bit of a legend of Irish theatre.

Ruth Bradley stars as Gráinne, daughter of Cormac King: a mobster who’s turned on his old enforcer Fionn. An attempted hit is averted by Oisín, his son, and Diarmuid, Fionn’s bodyguard – an orphan he’s come to see almost as another son.

An arrangement is made to make the peace: Fionn will marry Gráinne, a damaged, complicated former actress who’s half his age. They court and get engaged; they even seem to like each other well enough.

Gráinne, though, has other plans. She’s been in love with Diarmuid for years, and more than this, she wants out: of the life, the futile cycle of gangster violence, the sense that her life has been preordained for her, that she has no choice or agency – no future worth having. 

So she drugs Fionn, puts a gun to Diarmuid’s head and forces him to spirit her away. Thus begins the pursuit, with Fionn and King’s men on their trail. Eventually the pair are forced to turn for help to the worst enemy of both mobsters: the Searbhán, a swaggering people trafficker now living in Spain, and his De Dannan army.

It sounds glib to say that Pursuit is essentially Love/Hate crossed with ancient Irish mythology, but the description fits, I think. Mercier keeps every element of the original intact, cleverly adapting them for 2016 Ireland (and Dublin is reimagined as a place called Tara) – then stirs in the kinetic violence, unending expletives and dangerous, scuzzy atmosphere of Stuart Carolan’s drama.

And it works, mostly. I love these updated things anyway – there’s no more enjoyable Shakespeare film that Baz Lurhmann’s Romeo and Juliet – and Pursuit is a fine film in its own right.

The script is tight, coiled and very tense. The plot swoops and spikes between quieter moments and explosions of action. And the acting is excellent, across the board.

Liam Cunningham (Fionn) is always good value, Bradley has real charisma and a compelling screen presence, and Barry Ward (Diarmuid) makes a believable hero – also, he genuinely looks tough, like he can handle himself. Best performance, for me, was Dónall Ó Héalaí as Oisín: a tricky role, given the character’s layers and the fact that he must choose between his father and his friend, but Ó Héalaí nails it.

Pursuit was made, clearly, on a relatively small budget, and it shows. The film would have looked better – ultimately been better – if they’d had more money for action scenes. It feels more like television than cinema, and the soundtrack is pretty generic-sounding. There’s no getting past all that.

But you have to be fair about it too: the film is shot well, and uses Ireland even better as a setting: urban and rural – from the breath-taking Burren and Atlantic coast to abandoned ghost estates in some Midlands nowhere-town.

It’s often funny, there are moments of genuine poetry, and it’s properly exciting in places too: the forest shootout and car chase, the hotel scene, the montage of different phone conversations near the end.

Pursuit ends in a downbeat, minor-key kind of way; if you know the legend, you’ll be expecting that. Once or twice our on-the-lam couple come across as a Hibernian Bonnie and Clyde, but there’s no death-or-glory bullet-strewn finale destined for them, and certainly no happy ending; just one final betrayal. Oddly enough, while sad, it also feels fitting – almost right.

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