Tuesday 20 March 2018

2016 Ones to watch: Now Lenny goes to Hollywood: the story of a slow success...

Lenny Abrahamson, director

Award contention: Lenny Abrahamson has directed Room.
Award contention: Lenny Abrahamson has directed Room.

Paul Whitington

In an interview with the Guardian a few years back, Lenny Abrahamson recalled a particularly dispiriting moment while he was promoting his debut feature, Adam & Paul. "I remember a Q&A I did in Wales where there were five people in the auditorium," he said. "One guy who was really pissed came up on stage halfway through to give me a big hug. So my hopes weren't high."

And that was always the fear with Abrahamson: Adam & Paul was wonderful, a comical tale of hopeless drug addicts that earned rave reviews and comparisons to everything from Waiting for Godot to Withnail and I; but it made only a modest splash outside Ireland, and seemed to suggest that Lenny might remain an art-house director, with films that were often admired but rarely seen.

All that has been changed, however, by Room. Only a brave man would have taken on a story based on the horrific exploits of Josef Fritzl, but with the help of Emma Donoghue, Abrahamson has transformed her novel into a harrowing but ultimately uplifting film that's gained real traction in the US and wormed its way into awards contention.

So far Room has earned three Golden Globe and two Screen Guild nominations, and Oscar nods may follow. It is, as they say, a game-changer for a man who came to film-making relatively late and has always liked to work on a small, even intimate, scale.

Raised in south Dublin, Lenny studied at Trinity and had begun experimenting with short films when he was offered a chance to study for a PhD in philosophy at Stanford University at California. But as soon as he got there, he realised he'd made a mistake. "I loved the subject," he has said, "but I felt lonely, and I was aching to do something in film."

Instead, he ended up making TV commercials for a number of years, work that gave him enough know-how and experience to return to film-making a more mature and confident director.

Abrahamson was in his late 30s when he collaborated with writer Mark O'Halloran on Adam & Paul, a funny, absurd and tragic odyssey following the desperate exploits of a pair of Dublin smackheads. It was unlike any Irish film before it, and displayed a rare visual aesthetic in a country prone to verbiage. Financial Times critic Nigel Andrews decided it might be "the best thing that's ever happened to Irish cinema".

Abrahamson and O'Halloran's next film, Garage (2007) was even better in my opinion, and remains for me the best Irish film yet made. The director coaxed a memorable performance from funnyman Pat Shortt, who played Josie, a gormless man who lives on the edge of a small midlands town and becomes a pariah due to an innocent misunderstanding. It was beautifully photographed, and a film of real depth.

But these were lean, low-budget art-house movies that made only modest impacts outside Ireland. Since 2011, however, Abrahamson has begun to work on ever larger canvasses.

His outstanding contemporary drama What Richard Did starred Jack Reynor as a privileged sixth-year student who seems to have everything going for him until his life takes a horrible and unexpected turn. When he clashes with his girlfriend's ex at a messy student party, Richard kicks his rival once too often and accidentally kills him.

That's bad enough, but when the police drop the case due to lack of evidence, the young man must either confess or learn to live with what he's done. What Richard Did performed strongly at the international festivals, and brought Lenny to a wider audience.

I loved Frank, Abrahamson's eccentric and free-wheeling adventure loosely inspired by the life of English comedian Chris Sievey. Domhnall Gleeson was a callow musician who joins a chaotic indie band fronted by a man (Michael Fassbender) who wears a giant papier-mache head any time he's in public.

"Mostly it works because it is just so weird," said the Guardian's Peter Bradshaw, and it's hard to disagree.

Then came Room, a massive challenge for Abrahamson as it set him the task of making what might have been a lurid horror story into something human.

Brie Larsson has received deserved acclaim for her portrayal of Joy, a young woman who was kidnapped and has been held for years in a squalid cabin where she gave birth to her rapist's child. Instead of succumbing to despair, she pours her love and hope into her little boy, Jack, and Room is really a film about how they manage to survive and even thrive.

The movie has been lavishly praised in America, especially for its fluent and sensitive direction, and the further Room goes in the awards season, the higher Abrahamson's star will rise.

Next up is a Civil War drama, Neverhome, another challenge for this exceptionally talented Irish film-maker for whom the sky is now the limit.

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