"I think that I shall never see A tree lovely as a cheque"
Katy Hayes, with apologies to A J Kilmer

Mothers and sons

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Katy Hayes | The Sunday Times | Apr 19 2015

Toni Collette and Jack Reynor excel in Gerard Barrett’s latest Dublin tale

I usually subtract a star from a film that features the lead female dancing alone to a pop song.

I nearly make an exception for Glassland, as the gyrations that Toni Collette performs to Soft Cell’s Tainted Love are so appropriate and integrated that the episode leaps clear of the cliché.

Most of the pop songs in the film we don’t hear at all, merely imagine, as taxi driver John (Jack Reynor) puts in his earphones. In a sense, he is blocking out the world. In a later scene, he offers the earbuds to someone else, in a small gesture of humanity, one that shows the director knows exactly what he’s doing. John’s use of his earphones ironically underpins the absence of a musical score in the film, apart from a sequence near the end.

There is much to remind the viewer of the writer-director Gerard Barrett’s debut film, Pilgrim Hill, but Glassland is a more dramatically accomplished and skilful piece of work. The same cinéma-verité visual style is employed, with interiors dressed to give the impression of “found” grubby spaces.

John works the rough end of the taxi market in a dreary Dublin suburb. His clients mainly comprise Asian girls being delivered to truckers’ cabs at night. He lives alone with his mother, Jean (Toni Collette), a chronic alcoholic we first meet asleep in a pool of her own vomit.

The core of the film is the relationship between son and mother, and his efforts to pull her back from the brink. Reynor’s performance is low-key, but when required to hit a high note he is impressive. Collette is a convincing mess. We rarely see drunken women on screen, and when we do, they are usually played for cute and lovable tipsiness. Not here: Collette gives us full-on legless. Dramaturgical sins are committed, including a cardinal screenwriting offence of exposition, when Jean drunkenly but articulately explains her psychological issues. This somehow manages to work, because Collette’s performance is so good and the backstory so interesting.

Will Poulter as Shane, a friend intent on emigration, emits an unsettling and dangerous kinetic energy. He and John hang out in arcades and play video games. Shane, too, has family issues, with his ex-girlfriend: “I pay half my labour to her, and I don’t even see the kid.” Shane’s mother is of the traditional variety, bringing them tea and generally being maternal. “There’s no shame in a mother’s love,” she declares, as her affection is treated with disdain.

After the lads argue with staff in a video store, John leaves with the sexual taunt: “Say hello to your ma for me.” These are young, assertive and mildly aggressive guys, but their mothers are central, and the film is full of maternal imagery. On Jean’s bedside table is a statue of the Virgin Mary. Hanging from the rear-view mirror in John’s taxi is a small icon of the Madonna and Child. It is clear Jean’s alcoholism has its roots in the shocks occasioned by motherhood. Her attitude to her children is complicated, tragic and believable.

There is a falling-off in the final third of the film, when John becomes mixed up with a shady criminal element. The pace drops, and the director’s lack of experience shows. If adherence to the pared-back aesthetic of a passive camera creates a perfect context for realistic performances, sometimes a little artificiality is required, and a bit of pace-pumping would not have gone amiss. The criminal strand of the film needed more story development.

This flaw does not derail the enterprise as the real wealth here is the son-mother dynamic, and the attempted family-repair job. Reynor plays the hero with an easy command beyond his 23 years. He adds this fine performance to an impressive acting CV, including Irish films Dollhouse and What Richard Did and the recent Hollywood sci-fi juggernaut Transformers: Age of Extinction.

At 27, Gerard Barrett is still young for someone in his trade. There is an originality to this story and a palpable seriousness of intent. He has seized the Irish mother-son narrative, taken potshots at the sainted mother image, and created a heroic space for the son. Here come the young men.

Glassland
15/15A 93 mins
★★★

Link to Sunday Times article