Director/Screenwriter: Tom Collins
2008 European Union Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Ah, fawk, I really wanted to give Kings, the first film performed largely in Irish, a big thumbs up, really. It’s a good thing when a language that has teetered on the edge of extinction, as Irish Gaelic has, gains exposure to an international audience and a large segment of its would-be indigenous speakers through a popular cultural form. Language can legitimate a culture as few other expressions can. Faraor (alas), Kings will only appeal to Irish speakers, and perhaps only to those who lived the émigré experience of 20 to 40 years ago. Indeed, at the screening I attended last night, I was surrounded by Irish-born, Irish-fluent seniors, mainly men, who identified strongly with the story. “That’s just how it was,” said the nice Irish gentleman on my left, who assured me that the subtitles were dead on. That’s something, I suppose.
The story and look of Kings tracks rather closely with John Cassavetes’ searing look at men in pain, Husbands. Five Irish men who emigrated to England in the 1980s to seek fame and fortune—and presumably to return to Ireland as kings—gather together to mourn the passing of a sixth of their number, Jackie (Seán Ó Tarpaigh), who died under the wheels of a train in London’s Underground. Two of the men, Git (Brendan Conroy) and Jap (Donal O’Kelly), still live together in the apartment all six shared when they first arrived from Connamara. Both men are alcoholics and unemployed. Máirtín (Barry Barnes) is in a marriage strained to the breaking point by his drinking. Shay (Donncha Crowley) is middle class and responsible; he picks up Jackie’s father (Peadar O’Treasaigh) at the airport and arranges the funeral and transport of Jackie’s body back to Ireland for burial. Joe (Colm Meaney) is the rich success of the group. He’s addicted to cocaine, “the rich man’s alcohol,” as Git calls it. Our dead man was rejected by Joe, whom he looked up to like a big brother, because he was an unreliable drunk.
After the funeral, which Joe skips out of guilt and only the four other friends, Jackie’s father, and a few nuns attend, the lads meet in a pub called Connamara, keep bellowing “all for one and one for all” at each other, drink, and wax sentimental all night about Jackie. Harsh truths that can come as a surprise to no one in the audience come out one by one as alcohol loosens inhibitions while seeming to have no other effect on these professional drinkers. Everyone leaves. The end of yet another bender. Nothing changes.
So what have we just seen? An Irish film that takes place entirely in London, with the exception of some brief flashbacks that look like they could have been shot almost anywhere. Five out of six Irishmen in a single group of friends who are addicts of one sort or another. Immigrants of such long standing that most of them don’t consider Ireland home anymore but still imagine they’ll go back one day. Sentimentality laid on with a cement trowel. In other words—every stereotype of the Irish you can imagine.
None of the actors give life to their sketchy characters. The writer doesn’t provide them with any kind of substance, only speechified resentments and melodramatic crosses to bear. The ensemble is even forced to sing “Danny Boy” to a jukebox accompaniment, though they are careful to ridicule it afterwards. Instead of Jackie, they should have thrown the script (based on what I’m sure was an equally tedious play) under a train and started over.
Yet, my fellow moviegoer said, “that’s just how it was.” Perhaps it was indeed. Life comes with regrets, and it may have done men of his generation a service to air them in a language they hold dear. Perhaps it’s even appropriate to an Irish-language film to be about this generation, as the youth of the Celtic Tiger generation understandably have no attachment to the tatters of the past.
A commenter on IMDb said this about Husbands: “A beautifully observed and outrageously unsentimental study of sentiment, Husbands explores the desires, loves and losses of a generation constantly running away from their lives through three men who actually do it.” The generation Kings captures deserved at least as much. l