Carol for Christmas

Carol is more than just a pretty picture. Between its woozy emotional headspace, incredible central performances and Haynes’s eerie ability to frame a pivotal emotional crossroad, it feels like the first film of the year truly capable of marauding Hollywood’s impending awards season. 

***

Carol
Cert: 15A

THE last time Cate Blanchett and director Todd Haynes collaborated was 2007’s problematic Dylan hagiography I’m Not There. After years in development purgatory – Cork director John Crowley was linked to it at one stage – Carol arrives with both major awards buzz as well as a better return from the Haynes-Blanchett partnership.

But there is a third part to this sublime adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt. It is Rooney Mara (The Social Network, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo), who pulls off that very rare feat of matching Blanchett’s acting muscle blow for blow.

It helps that the material on offer is as meaty as it is. In a lush 1950s Manhattan, Mara plays Therese, a sheepish department store clerk who one day encounters the titular Carol, Blanchett’s leonine society lady. Carol initially gives off the appearance of a happily married mother of one but a chemistry between the two sucks them both helplessly into a passionate and consuming love affair.

Much in the background is against them; Carol’s sham marriage to Harge (Kyle Chandler) and how the divorce courts will consider her behaviour in terms of custody for their daughter; Therese’s own disgruntled and ultimately discarded beau; old-fashioned social norms that, in one sense, facilitated two women spending much time together in public yet looked on homosexuality as a disorder.

Blanchett and Mara are mesmeric. Both invoke the ghosts of Katherine and Audrey Hepburn, respectively, and it will be intriguing to see who emerges with the statuettes next Spring. Haynes, meanwhile, shoots in grainy Super 16 which give the Hopperesque backdrops a dreamy quality. Windows are peered through during risky conversations and the focal point of a restaurant floor could be an intimate meeting in a far corner. Prepare to swoon in new ways at one of this year’s most beautiful and sensual love stories.

5/5

First published in the Sunday Independent

Donal’s favourite

Strolling into the Bord Gais Energy Irish book Awards last night, the first person I happened across was supernaturally gifted storyteller and awards magnet Donal Ryan (who went on to scoop the Writing.ie Short Story Of The Year award for A Slanting Of The Sun). We shook hands and had a good catch-up. Very kindly, he told me that my 2012 Sunday Independent interview was “still” his favourite piece of press. And that, gentle reader, is a bloody nice thing to hear from one of contemporary Irish fiction’s finest writers. 

***

WERE I a rival author, I might consider slapping Donal Ryan on his clean-shaven face right about now. He’s telling me all about scooping the Sunday Independent Best Irish Newcomer gong at the Bord Gais Energy Irish Book Awards and I’m starting to resent his shameless modesty.

“I just said to myself that being on the shortlist is brilliant but I haven’t a prayer of winning it,” he marvels. “I kept thinking that when the award is read out I can finally relax and enjoy the night. Then Madeleine [Keane, Sunday Independent Literary Editor] looked at me and said my name. My first thought was: ‘Jayzus, Madeleine’s said the wrong name! She’s after making an awful mess of it!’”

In a stout north Tipperary accent, Ryan goes on to tell me about his wife shaking him, as if from a dream, saying “Donal, you won, you won!” as he sat there agape. Just in case he wasn’t feeling enough of a fish out of water, he then got lost en route to the stage to collect his award “like an eejit”.

It’s no easier hearing his thoughts on then pipping writers such as, oh, only Edna O’Brien, John Banville and Tana French to the overall Bord Gais Energy Book Of The Year post last weekend. “I was on the awards website on Sunday night. We’d just watched Love/Hate and I checked to see what time they were announcing the Book of the Year. There it was. I just passed my wife the iPhone and said: ‘Will you read that out to me there because I think it says I’ve won but I’m not sure’!”

He can talk-up how much better he reckoned fellow newcomer nominees Mary Costello (“sublime”) or Cathleen McMahon (“brilliant”) were but the fact of the matter is these two awards have gone to a fitting home. His debut novel The Spinning Heart is staggeringly accomplished, both in style (penetrative chapter-by-chapter monologues) and the assuredness of its author’s voice. In dealing with the confessions of a group of villagers amidst the moral snakes and ladders of recession-ravaged middle-Ireland, it’s also soberingly pertinent.

The real culprits behind Ryan’s faltering self-belief, he agrees, are the some 47 publishers who rejected the finished manuscript. “I think I did an OK job of not taking rejection too personally. But every rejection does hurt a little bit. It knocks you a little bit, because for so many writers it never happens.”

It was only when Ryan was ushered into the Dublin offices of Lilliput Press that he really began to see his stars finally align. After a fruitful meeting in which he received glowing praise for the first time from people other than family and close friends, he sat in the car, phoned home and “got a bit emotional”.

There’s an intensity to Ryan. He speaks at a brisk pace, and will frown down at the table when praising Lenny Abrahamson, John Boyne or anyone else he has huge admiration for. Into this category falls the love of his life, Anne Marie, the person who gave him the boot in the backside required to spur him into keyboard-tapping action. “Oh yeah,” he nods sternly. “She said to me: ‘If you’re a writer and you’re writing a book, what are you doing watching television?’ I was shamed into it.”

The pair met in 2005 on a picket line in Limerick, of all places, during industrial strike action. But it was only on their second encounter a while afterwards that he got that old-fashioned feeling that told him they’d be married one day. His hunch was a prescient one, and two years later it came to pass.

Like his parents, who built an extension to their home to house their beloved books, Ryan and his wife are possibly the most bookish couple living in the Limerick suburb of Castleroy. They agree on most literature bar David Mitchell’s time-warping modern classic Cloud Atlas. The couple also co-authored two masterpieces in the form of four-year-old Thomas and three-year-old Lucy. While it’s great and all, parenthood is not for the feint-hearted, he insists.

“It’s all-consuming, really,” he puffs. “It’s a second full-time job when you come home. When Thomas was born, I was about three quarters the way through the first draft. All I could think about was Thomas and different things that could happen to him. Your anxiety can spike for no reason just while you’re sitting at a desk. I had to train myself to tune it out and not think about it.”

Along with his day job as a civil servant, writing is a good distraction from such self-conjured worries and it’s been this way for many years. His father (a driving instructor) always wrote verse, and as a schoolboy Ryan read beyond his level. His primary school years in St Joseph’s CBS, Nenagh saw him  became “obsessed” with Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song while his burgeoning enthusiasm was buttressed by two teachers who he still credits to this day.

He picks up my copy of The Spinning Heart and runs a hand tenderly over its matted finish as if it’s fresh off the press. It stays there while he fills me in on his first novel, The Thing About December, due out next year. He meditates over the cover for a few seconds in silence. “I never had an image of myself as being anything except a writer,” he concludes. “Funny that.”

 

Kurt’s Vibe

Love me a bit of Kurt Vile, but he can be a tricky sort live. Last week’s Vicar St show was top notch, however. Here’s my State review.

***

Kurt Vile and the Violators
Vicar St, Dublin / Nov 15, 2015

TONIGHT feels different. When we last met Kurt Vile, there was a somewhat detached air about the hirsute guitar maestro and erstwhile Warrior on Drugs. This heavily subscribed Vicar St show sees him joined by threepiece backing band the Violators, whose fraternal presence appears to temper the 35-year-old’s more curtained tendencies. They also help make flesh the ranging, circular rock songs that we felt didn’t get fully airborne last time around due to it being a solo acoustic show.

Vile may resemble a bed-headed guitar tech and sing in a resigned drawl but the vibe the quartet conjure is, like Vile’s career in general, the stuff of fierce determination. That voice is less a disseminator of poetic visions than a read-back from his own slacker diary, a one-man conversation about times hazy and perplexing on the great Americana highway. ‘Dust Bunnies’ (one of many highlights off this year’s believe I’m goin downserved up here) uses douses of organ and a steady thump to get heads nodding. During the bittersweet bliss of ‘Walkin’ On a Pretty Day’, the wirey frame and formidable mop curl over the guitar as he goes off on one of his refreshingly indulgence-free solos.

Yes, where Vile goes so too does a crisp, multi-coloured guitar style that is all his own. Tonight, he swaps banjo (‘I’m An Outlaw’) for sumptuously finger-picked acoustic (‘Stand Inside’, ‘That’s Life, Tho’) for Fender Jaguar (‘KV Crimes’, the dusty ‘Wheelhouse’) whipping them off impatiently afterwards as if fearful of a sag in atmosphere. When someone deliriously blurts out “Kurt Vile!” amid the howls of approval, you question his concern.

‘Freak Train’ makes for a perfect crescendo, a frenzied, saxophone-buoyed celebration of rock ‘n’ roll in all its adolescent chaos. Security-riling scamps are up on the shoulders of others. Vile holds his Jaguar aloft like a beacon as FX pedals squall through the room of grins. There are no salutes or shout outs to our fallen brothers and sisters in Paris. It’s not his style. But what he’s done tonight has sounded a reminder to jaded hearts everywhere following the atrocity just 48 hours previously. The message is gin-clear: Rock ‘n’ roll will never be killed. These nights will never be taken from us. Nous Somme Bataclan.

Deft Hand Gestures

This fascinating documentary gets a limited run in Dublin’s IFI this week. For anyone with an interest in art, craft or the exigence of human creativity, it is essential viewing.

***

Hand Gestures
Cert: Club

THE permanency of bronze and the painstaking toil of a craft that cannot be bluffed by technology are the thematic cornerstones of this bewitching Berlinale-winning documentary from debutante Francesco Clerici. The idea was simplicity itself – a fly-on-the-wall look at the methodology of a Milan’s century-old Fonderia Artistica Battaglia as it goes about creating a sculpture using the “lost-wax casting” system, a method that dates back to ancient times.

It is, we are told in a muted introduction, an oral history that has been passed down all these centuries, and given the concentration involved and the precision required at every stage within the foundry, this makes perfect sense – one slip of the wax knife or the angle grinder and days and days of work can be undone.

Clerici hovers from one master to the next as a model of a sleeping dog gets moved around the warehouse. The wax is worked to perfection. It is cocooned in clay and plaster, and half buried as molten bronze is fed through. There is the similar feeling of satisfaction as watching a Rube Goldberg machine progressing.

Clerici’s minimal style, free of music, voiceover or mood lighting, pulls you in to become part of the process, a supervisor with a somehow vested interest in how the sculpture will turn out by the end of the 77 minutes. The only prods come when he abruptly splices in archive black-and-white footage of predecessors engaged in the very same toil, albeit with less protective clothing.

It is all too rare that documentary filmmaking allows the simple magic of a subject to radiate without any embellishment. Hand Gestures solidifies as calmly as the liquid metal rendered before us, and it is utterly engrossing because of it. Sometime less is indeed more. 4/5

First published in the Sunday Independent

Bennett On

****

The Lady In The Van

Cert: 12A

WHEN Alan Bennett allowed a vagrant old lady living in a busted Robin Reliant to park in his Camden Town driveway, it was, what he called, an act of “writerly selfishness”. Mary Shepherd had landed mysteriously on his street and was attracting attention, both the wrong kind (hoodlums, authorities etc) and the more welcome sort (kindly neighbours gave her clothes and food). While perhaps not simpler, Bennett reasoned at the time, life would be quieter with the van parked safely in his driveway rather than out in full view on the pavement.

What was meant to be three weeks turned into 15 years and provided ample material for Bennett’s much-loved 1989 non-fiction work The Lady In The Van. Maggie Smith played Mary in the subsequent radio play and Bennett’s 1999 stage version, and is formidable here again as the hygienically suspect and wildly anarchic old bat about whom he observed with typical Leeds dryness: “One seldom was able to do her a good turn without some thoughts of strangulation.”

There is an unsurprising buoyancy about Bennett’s own screenplay that is very pleasing, especially in the nicely weighted sideways interludes where Bennett (Alex Jennings, superb) is bickering with himself, one half chiding from the desk, the other twitching the curtain in horror at Miss Shepherd’s latest perversity.

Longtime Bennett collaborator Nicholas Hytner directs a film as English as pasties and Pimm’s, but with a sting in the tail here and there that do the overall project a great service. Good work. 4/5

First published in the Sunday Independent

We need to talk about Kevin

The £10,000 Goldsmiths Prize has become the latest literary award to fall at the feet of Limerick author Kevin Barry. My copy of Beatlebone arrived yesterday so today’s news comes just as I finally get to sit down to read a novel I’ve been eagerly awaiting for months. I have banged on about Barry’s brilliance ever since I reviewed City Of Bohane for the Sunday Independent in 2011 (a line of which made the 2nd edition’s blurbs). Reading back, it’s a bit overcooked (my review, not …Bohane), but it’ll give you an idea of why he rocks my boat so much. (I also reviewed his second short-story collection Dark Lies The Island in 2012. It too is rather effing amazing. Gander ye here). 

City of Bohane
Kevin Barry
Jonathan Cape

WITH one collection of short stories to his name (2007’s Rooney Prize-winning There Are Little Kingdoms) Kevin Barry still had to deliver a debut literary opus, something loud and cocky to make good on the promise he has shown so far.

City of Bohane is his first novel proper and with it he makes a bold statement, not only about his considerable talent but also his plot to upend the realm of modern Irish literature with a work of such singular scope and voice that it is bound to be the talk of book circles this year and possibly beyond.

Life takes a variety of forms in Barry’s dimension. The titular city itself is a writhing, agonising animal, a 2053 Connacht dystopia which is hard to imagine a path towards from today’s Ireland. Technology has been eschewed and society has regrouped into tribes and clans. They observe dress codes and follow a cut-throat etiquette in their search for dominance over Bohane.

Logan Hartnett is leader of the prominent and aptly vicious gang the Hartnett Fancy. Returning from a 25-year exile is Gant Broderick, his past-his-prime nemesis who is looking to take back what is his, which includes Logan’s wife Macu. Among the numerous “grog pits”, opium dens and smut houses of Bohane’s Smoketown district (a map is provided inside the back cover), a roiling collection of ne’er-do-wells fill in the gaps.

There’s the Hartnett henchmen Wolfie Stanners and Fucker Burke, the “fat newsman” Dom Gleeson and the vampish and treacherous Jenni Ching. All, including Logan’s iron-fisted but bed-ridden mother Girly, may or may not be out to do him over, not that he doesn’t have it coming. All the while, in the Northside Rises, the rival Cusack gang is launching a bid for power, which will result in a citywide feud.

The grime and dread are burned into the reader’s imagination by way of recurring waves of description, almost song-like in their woozy tones. Nothing is explained about how our proud nation ends up descending into the piratical anarchy and peculiar fashion of Bohane in a mere 40 years, but the suspicion is a climatic disaster (references are made to the “sweltering” springtime and treacherously cold winds and winters). Automobiles are mentioned as things from days of yore. Out beyond the city lies the Big Nothin’, an unforgiving and desolate bog, while the ocean is referred to as “the Black Atlantic”. You get the picture.

Barry achieves much within this limited colour scheme. His language is startling, somehow a physical presence. It coils and releases itself or grooves hypnotically before breaking into a frantic spasm of description or dialogue. A particularly Irish brand of gallows humour runs amok throughout, so laughter is often elicited in ominous scenarios. The gears in your brain are being shifted around and you’re enjoying the feeling.

His touchstones — The Wire, Gangs of New York, the low-life blues yarns of Island-era Tom Waits, etc — are unhidden. Hiberno-English is bastardised fully in the speech of the Bohanians, with Baltimore street slang and the leering lilt of The Rubberbandits coming together to bemusing effect. Our narrator reins this in but, as he glacially reveals, he too is a proud inhabitant of Bohane and sometimes forgets himself by slipping back into the street-creole.

Like David Simon’s landmark HBO series, a few conversations must be sat through before the lingo becomes fully decipherable. But also like that series, it is this commitment required of the reader, this decision made early on to get on board or not that means City of Bohane is a book that can’t be half-read.

It’s doubtful that anyone will look back on City of Bohane for its innovative plot structure or wry commentary on life. Instead, it will maintain an evergreen blossom borne out of its author’s uncanny way with his language. It will go on to teach valuable lessons to Barry’s successors, reminding them of the places the written word can bring you to and that there is always beauty to be eked out of dark and sinister corners of human existence.

Those people who harbour ambitions to write a book are usually made to reassess things when writers like Kevin Barry pop up on the radar. As of this book’s publication, he is a game-changer, someone who will perch annoyingly at the back of the minds of Irish literature’s up-and-comers whispering “must try harder”.

Incredibly, City of Bohane isn’t even his career-defining masterpiece — that, you can rest assured, is on the way — and may struggle to secure an audience outside of Ireland and the UK. As a declaration of intent, however, it’s impossible to ignore.

First published in the Sunday Independent

Girl Band, you know it

They were to attack Dublin’s Button Factory this Saturday night but have cancelled the rest of their tour. Sooo… thought I might repost a recent review I did for State.ie of Girl Band’s unforgettable debut LP Holding Hands With Jamie. 

****

Having a song called ‘Heckle The Frames’ might be an indication of Girl Band’s attitude to “serious music”. Similarly, when you manage to piece apart the frantic yelps and adolescent wails of frontman Dara Kiely you might register mentions of Nutella, corn on the cob and garlic cheese chips. “Kids today,” you might harrumph, but why then do these nine songs from the Rough Trade ruffians feel like the one of the most straight-talking and expertly measured rock debuts in recent memory?

Controlled chaos defines Girl Band’s oeuvre. Take ‘Pears For Lunch’, which chips and taps with post-punk drill bits before pushing you down a pit filled with staccato guitar lacerations and brain-jamming bass pecks. Album opener ‘Umbongo’ is a straight-up aural mugging, a vicious industrial acid test for scenesters thinking the Dublin quartet could be their latest trendy Spotify search. “Survive this, and you can stay,” it screams. ‘In Plastic’ pulls a neat trick of a doo-wop rhythm and nightmarish guitar discord from Alex Duggan, as if some grand malignancy is being kept at bay via incantation. Brilliant bassist Daniel Fox slides around woozily on the primal pummel of Adam Faulkner on ‘Paul’, lurching towards a death disco riot that would send The Horrors scarpering for cover.

And then there’s Kiely. On the near eight-minute litany of outbursts that comprise ‘Fucking Butter’, the vocalist flits between an array of settings; a white-noise scream; a giddy, spit-flecked yelp; a slack background rant like a regretful reveller ejected from a Minor Threat gig for slam-dancing. He’s free associating at breakneck speed as ‘The Witch Doctor’ hurtles this astonishing album towards the cliff-edge. He might just be serious so seat-belts are advised.

4/5