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April 13, 2015
Around five minutes into Glassland, we watch Toni Collette having her stomach pumped after drinking too much and passing out the night before. Immediately we know what kind of territory we’re in. Irish writer-director Gerard Barrett’s second feature is an occasionally harrowing socio-realist drama that explores its themes with an uncompromising vérité style.
Collette plays Jean, the alcoholic mother to John played by outstanding rising talent Jack Reynor who made an impression in indie drama What Richard Did (2012) and has already been noticed by Hollywood as his role in Transformers: Age Of Extinction (2014) can attest. His character here is a good-hearted taxi driver living on the brink of poverty and Dublin’s seedy underworld. In order to provide, he moonlights as a sex trafficker, but he is still unable to save his mother from the downward spiral in which she has trapped herself.
Often in cinema we see self-destructive addiction from a first-person perspective. Think of Ewan McGregor in Trainspotting (1996), Michael Fassbender in Shame (2011) or, more relevantly, Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick in Days of Wine and Roses (1962). In Glassland, it is John who looks on as his mother drinks herself to death, something which he tells her in a key scene is “breaking my heart every day.” This adds pathos to their relationship, which is established excellently. Dialogue doesn’t play a huge part in the film, and the scenes in which John and Jean communicate only with their body language speak a thousand words.
Later this year, we will see Reynor star alongside Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard in Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth. If his performance here is anything to go by, he will have little trouble holding his own against those two phenomenal performers. He looks uncannily like Jack O’Connell and has a screen presence reminiscent of Tom Hardy or Cillian Murphy. He conveys much whilst saying little, making the rare occasions in which he loses his temper all the more powerful.
Collette also delivers an emotionally complex performance; behind her eyes she hides a profound sadness and deep self-loathing. In one pivotal scene, she tells John why she developed her alcoholism, almost shamelessly admitting that it was a knock-on effect from giving birth to John’s younger brother, Kit (Harry Nagle), who has Down’s syndrome. “It’s unexplainable,” she says of her disdain for him. But despite her shocking, abhorrent attitude, she earns enough of our sympathy that we still care for her.
Will Poulter (We’re The Millers, The Maze Runner) provides some welcome comic relief as John’s friend, Shane, himself dealing with the heartache of not being able to see his infant son. The great Michael Smiley, known for his excellent collaborations with Ben Wheatley on Kill List (2011) and A Field in England (2013), also stands out as the compassionate owner of a rehab clinic.
I’m aware that I have made Glassland seem like a very depressing film, but in actual fact there are some very touching moments amidst the raw emotion and bleak mood, with unexpected flashes of humour. The resilience of the characters alleviates the brooding atmosphere and makes the film much easier to watch.
Barrett doesn’t mind letting his camera linger or remain motionless, preferring to allow it to capture each and every nuance as it happens. His story moves at a very deliberate pace, giving the characters plenty of room to breathe. Evocative cinematography by Piers McGrail and punchy editing by Nathan Nugent help make this a compelling watch.
Having said that, Glassland isn’t perfect. Melodrama occasionally rears its ugly head, and an unsuccessful attempt to present the criminal subplot as ambiguous ends up being unintentionally vague; a shame given that it plays a large part in the film’s climax.
I can’t complain too much, however, because given how little I knew of Glassland before watching it, I was very impressed. The likelihood of it being seen by as many people as it deserves is slim, but it’s definitely worth making the effort. No doubt Jack Reynor will be a force to be reckoned with in the near future.
Glassland is released in UK cinemas on April 17th