Friday 18 January 2019

Golden moment: 'Room' at the top for Irish director

Will tonight's LA Globes finally put Lenny Abrahamson on the Hollywood map

Confined place: Jacob Tremblay (left) and Brie Larson star in the movie
Confined place: Jacob Tremblay (left) and Brie Larson star in the movie
Lenny Abrahamson: Dubliner's a rising star

Ed Power

The omens were not especially auspicious when Lenny Abrahamson went on the road to promote his debut feature film, Adam and Paul, in 2004. He would later shudderingly recall a Q and A session in Wales at which five people showed up - one a drunk who clambered up to offer the speechless director a hug. In his mid 30s, a decade plus of low-wattage failure behind him, Abrahamson had reason to conclude that his ship had sailed. The Dubliner had a career, of sorts, churning out glossy beer commercials. The thought occurred that a hired hack was all he would ever amount to.

Twelve years later, Abrahamson must be pinching himself. Tonight he will take his seat at the Golden Globes in Los Angeles, freshly anointed as one of the hottest directors in town.

His fifth movie, Room - which opens in Irish cinemas next Friday - is up for three Globes and predicted to perform even better at the Oscars.

What makes this achievement especially impressive is Room's horrific subject matter - inspired loosely by the Josef Fritzl case and based on the 2010 Emma Donoghue bestseller, it tells of a mother (Brie Larson) and son (Jacob Tremblay) held captive by a psychopathic rapist (Donoghue, who adapted her own book, is nominated for a Golden Globe for best screenplay). As with Fritzl, the abductor is also the child's father, adding an undertow of visceral horror to an already disturbing story.

"Room has certainly put Lenny Abrahamson on the map, as far as Hollywood is concerned," says Tim Gray, senior vice president of Variety magazine. "I think people on the festival circuit and the art-house circuit knew his earlier work. But for many people in Hollywood, he is new because of Room. It hasn't made a huge amount of money in the States, but there is almost zero relationship between box-office and industry awareness. Most people in Hollywood don't pay to see movies. I think Oscar attention will help the film."

Knocking on 50, Abrahamson is arguably a little long in the tooth for the part of wunderkind. Then, as he pointed out when his third feature, What Richard Did, became the toast of the festival circuit in 2012, for a director he is distinctly on the youthful side (Clint Eastwood remains prolific at 85).

Besides, whatever about his vintage, it is clear that Hollywood regards him as an important new talent. The swooning has been relentless since Room debuted at the prestigious Toronto Film Festival in September. At Toronto, Abrahamson absented himself from the screening, fretting whether the audience would 'get' the movie. When he heard shrieks and claps from the other side of the door, it dawned on him that the reaction might be more positive than he'd dared hope.

"I stood outside thinking I was going out and do the usual chat afterwards where they introduce the cast, but I heard this huge ovation, a huge roar and I looked around thinking, 'Are people really responding like that?'," he recalled later.

"I walked out and everyone stood up, and there was this immense sense of emotional release, both in the audience, but really for me. You imagine that response to a film, and then to have that happening... It's like a double image. You're running the fantasy and the reality at the same time."

It seems a strange thing to say of the director of often difficult art-house movies - all of his films are jagged, open-veined affairs, to be endured as much as enjoyed - but Abrahamson's ascent has a fairytale quality. Indeed, it's a story you could imagine the director himself being drawn to: that of the teenage prodigy who undergoes a mid 20s breakdown only to pull his life together and start over (the difference is that, in Abrahamson's hands, the yarn would surely lack a happy ending).

He was born in solidly middle class Dublin in 1966 and studied at Trinity. At college, he was regarded as somewhat of a boy genius. His student films received tremendous acclaim and he was accepted for a philosophy PhD at prestigious Stanford University in California. Here is where the wheels came off.

"As soon as I got there, I felt really unsure. I loved the subject but I felt lonely, and I was aching to do something in film. Then once I was back in Dublin six months later, I thought: 'What have I chucked away?'"

He muddled through, finding work in advertising (we have him to blame/thanks for those If Carlsberg Did… commercials). Yet the sense that he was selling himself short was ever-present - at least in his mind. He channelled his frustration and yearning into his debut, Adam and Paul, a €400,000 collaboration with writer and actor Mark O'Halloran.

A squalid tragicomedy with the emphasis firmly on tragedy, Adam and Paul wrestles with themes to which Abrahamson would return throughout his career - specifically whether it is ever possible for an outsider to find acceptance. In Garage, he cast Pat Shortt as a developmentally-impaired petrol pump attendant in the sticks; What Richard Did was about a rugby school jock who commits a horrible crime and is thus alienated from his South County Dublin, Hooray Henry clique.

"There's been a pressure on the characters at the centre and a hemmed in quality, either through external circumstances or because of who they are," Abrahamson later mused. "In What Richard Did, you start outside that character, but end up inside it... Looking at my own work, there are these things that emerge that I'm obviously preoccupied about and it's very interesting as a filmmaker to see those reflected back to me from the work."

He had to hustle for Room, writing Donoghue a 10 page letter, explaining why he wanted to adapt her book and how he intended going about it. Their voices would prove uncannily compatible. Abrahamson does not flinch from the story's starker elements - the early scenes are shot entirely in a cramped bedroom - but also embraces the book's uplifting later phases (arguably a first for the director). Of course, it is exceedingly doubtful the former would be possible without the latter: it's only because Abrahamson is willing to plunge so deeply into the dark, that he can make the sunlight feel authentic.

Were he younger, had acclaim come more easily, perhaps this is the point at which Abrahamson would feel entitled to enjoy his success. Yet, judging by his pronouncements, it's clear that he's been through too much to believe the hype - even when the hype is very real.

"The mood with me, Emma and the rest of the crew who worked on Room vacillates between total unreality that the film is getting this amount of attention," said the director, whose next project is to be an adaptation of the American Civil War novel Neverhome.

"There is great excitement... it's hard not to get caught up in it but you have to manage your expectations."

"I expect that Lenny Abrahamson will get job offers in Hollywood, if he hasn't already," adds Variety's Tim Gray. "Whether he takes these jobs or not… that's up to him."

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