Sunday 20 October 2019

McDonagh makes a scene about Irish films

It seems film-maker John Michael McDonagh likes Irish arts funding, but not Irish films

Calvary star Brendan Gleeson (left) with the film’s director, John Michael McDonagh
Calvary star Brendan Gleeson (left) with the film’s director, John Michael McDonagh

Emer O'Kelly

In 1996, I left the Town Hall Theatre in Galway following the world premiere of Martin McDonagh's The Beauty Queen of Leenane, wondering what part of England this new writer came from: the play was a total outsider's take on Ireland, as far as I could see.

But then, I'm Irish, and I know my country, for good and ill, from the inside. Martin McDonagh, on the other hand, was born and grew up in London, the son of emigrant Irish parents from the west of Ireland. When his parents returned to Ireland in the early 1990s he and his brother, John Michael, remained in London, living together in Camberwell.

And Martin McDonagh's 'Irish' plays have gone on to garner almost countless awards in the US and the UK. He drips with Tonys and Oliviers, and is weighted down with nominations as well. (I still think The Cripple of Inishmaan is the only good one.)

Since his phenomenal success as a playwright on the international stage, McDonagh has moved into the movie world with equal success. His first film award was in 2006, when he won an Oscar for his short film Six Shooter, starring Brendan Gleeson, which he wrote and directed.

In Bruges came next, in 2008, which took him into the big league, starring as it did Colin Farrell and Ralph Fiennes. His screenplay for that film was nominated for an Academy Award, and altogether it has received seven international awards and 12 nominations.

In 2011, Martin McDonagh, no longer an enfant terrible, stepped out of the limelight to take the role of executive producer on an Irish film The Guard, again starring Brendan Gleeson. It was the brainchild of his older brother John Michael, who wrote the screenplay and directed the movie, which was shot in Ireland, with an almost entirely Irish cast. It didn't show Ireland in a particularly good light and the comedy was dark. And it took €4m plus at the Irish box office.

It seemed to establish John Michael McDonagh as indubitably "Irish" as far as his work was concerned, despite his English rearing. But it seems John Michael McDonagh merely wants to play at being Irish when there's an advantage to it, as in receiving Irish State funding for his work.

After The Guard, brother Martin moved back onto the international scene with Seven Psychopaths, which starred Farrell (again), veteran "heavy" Christopher Walken, and Woody Harrelson. It garnered seven international award nominations.

But John Michael stayed on Irish soil to make Calvary, again with Brendan Gleeson and with, co-incidentally, almost a million of funding from the Irish Film Board - an astronomical sum in Irish arts funding terms in the current climate. And the funding seemed to have paid off for everyone concerned, including the Irish taxpayer, in that the film won Best Irish Film, and Best Screenplay for McDonagh at the Irish Film and Television Awards this year.

John Michael McDonagh was present to receive his awards, but oddly enough, didn't thank anyone, not even his mammy… or the Irish Film Board. It was odd in the realm of the customary gushing speeches at awards ceremonies.

The silence was not accidental, we discovered during the week. In a video interview with Associated Press, John Michael McDonagh said he would prefer that Calvary not be regarded as Irish. The reasons: "Like, I'm not a fan of Irish movies, I don't find them to be that technically accomplished and I don't find them that intelligent."

Calvary, he adds, "is not an Irish film. It's just set in Ireland with a lot of Irish characters". (So was The Quiet Man all those years ago, which even its fans would not claim was an Irish film. It was a piece of spectacularly entertaining Hollywood Shamroguery.) Calvary is different: the stars are Irish, the direction is Irish, and more importantly, much of the funding is Irish.

Some might say if he felt that surly, he should have stayed away from the award ceremony. And also, if he felt that surly, he should not have applied to the Irish Film Board in the first place.

The Guard was also not an Irish film, according to his thinking. And his reaction to Irish reaction, as it were, is to claim that production companies are trying to convince Irish audiences that "no, it's not like all those terrible Irish movies you've seen before". Those "terrible Irish movies" he seems to forget, have his brother's name rather prominently in their DNA over the past decade.

In an earlier decade the only real blockbuster for Ireland was probably My Left Foot, which made an international star of Daniel Day-Lewis and was made by Noel Pearson on what, in international terms, was a wing and a prayer. Pearson, however, has managed a successful career without disparaging the Irish film industry (as has the younger McDonagh brother), of which he was what could be called a founding member. And of course, there's no doubt about his being Irish.

You can't help wondering why, since he expresses such Swiftian contempt, the English John Michael McDonagh would have bothered to allow his identity be passed off as Irish for so long, or have anything to do with Ireland, even as a source of inspiration, much less monetary advantage. Maybe that's his Irish heritage: ingratitude and lack of logic.

READ: Scotland says no, and we should do the same next time John Michael McDonagh shows

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