Friday 20 April 2018

Glassland review - 'Still waters run deep in this glass-half-empty masterpiece'

Drama, starring Will Poulter, Toni Collette, Jack Reynor, Michael Smiley, Joe Mullins, Harry Nagle, Jack Barrett, Gary O'Nualain. Dir: Gerard Barrett. Cert: 15A.

Tanya Sweeney

Writer/director Gerard Barrett has been causing a commotion at various festivals in the past year, and with good reason. After sharing the Best Irish Feature accolade with Patrick's Day at last year's Galway Film Fleadh, Glassland went on to greatness at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah.


It also comes hot on the heels of Barrett's 2012 debt, the blistering Pilgrim Hill. Hopes are high for this film, in a word. The plot is the kind that creeps up on its audience unawares. John (Jack Reynor) is a taxi driver barely able to make ends meet. He lives with his mother Jean (Toni Collette), who is effectively drinking herself to death.

The drill is always the same; checking Jean is alive in her bed, scraping her off the doorstep, constantly making sure that her latest drinking binge isn't her last. John lives life on a knife-edge, albeit in the quietest, most stoic way possible. Finally, a solution is offered when, after her latest overdose, Jean is offered the chance to clean up in a private clinic.

Salvation comes at a high price, mind. Backed into a corner, John is forced to take a large job from a criminal element he has seemingly worked for in the past.

Anyone who has lived with an alcoholic is likely to find John's quiet desperation a rather uncomfortable and confrontational watch. He is a man grasping his final straw, and occasionally tempted to ditch the entire sorry fandango and emigrate with his mate Shane (Will Poulter). His devotion to his mother wavers on occasion, as well it might.

Jean is, to put it mildly, a handful. In Reynor's safe pair of hands, the audience will empathise keenly with John. There is genuine pain and conflict in those baby blues. Reynor picked up a Best Actor award at Sundance for his portrayal of John, and he manages a high-wire feat of stoicism and despair.

Amid the film, John has one spectacular blow-out (one senses it's been a long time coming), giving Reynor the chance to really show his chops.

Jean, meanwhile, is a character nicely fleshed out beyond the stereotypical addict. Jean has hysterical blowouts, too, but Collette rarely veers off into caricature. She does weepy spectacularly well, always has done… but it takes a special talent to bring a character like Jean to life.

Having abandoned her son Kit, who has Down Syndrome, in a residential home, Jean has the audience oscillating wildly between empathy and revulsion. In one scene, she admits that she rues the day she ever has Kit, and between the unflinching, brave dialogue and Collette's 1,000-yard stare, it's an astonishing scene. Another, where John and Jean drink together, is proof positive of Barrett's sleight of hand.

On occasion, Collette's Irish accent seems to straddle several counties at once, yet Poulter's truly magnificent Dublin accent bears mentioning. Shane, who treats his own devoted, highly functional mother with disdain, adds a touch of much-needed comic relief and lightness to the otherwise dour tapestry.

The measured, quiet pace of Glassland is smashed to smithereens in the final scenes. A shriek and swift blast of action almost threatens to derail the whole film, but it does at least make some of the pieces of the plot's puzzle fall into place.

Of course, making a drama about a man's unrelentingly bleak and dreary existence is tricky, not least because there's a very real risk of creating an unrelentingly bleak and dreary film. But there's something compelling and quietly powerful about the grim cycle that John finds himself in. Barrett uses stillness and an economy of scale to draw the viewer into John's hopeless dilemma.

It might have some audience members fidgeting in their seats for the first half hour, but it's more than worth the wait.


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