54th Chicago Int’l Film Fest #12: “The Belly of the Whale” (Ireland)

(An unedited version of this review was mistakenly published a few days ago. My apologies.)

“The Belly of the Whale” (Ireland)
Directed by Morgan Bushe

MV5BN2RkNjBkZDgtOTI5Yy00ZjlmLTlhYWItZjQ1ODg2Njc3ZjUyXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyODY0NTAyMzQ@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,666,1000_AL_This is the definition of a small buddy-buddy picture. Personally, I quite enjoyed it. However, full disclosure: 1) I’ll watch pretty much anything where everyone has a legit Irish accent, and 2) The majority of the few Fest-goers I spoke with didn’t love it. I was surprised to hear that because I think they missed a great little film. Why did they dislike it so? Various reasons were that it’s an incredibly simple plot, it occasionally lists into sap, one of the major characters is appallingly cast, and the ending is way over-the-top. HOWEVER, for me, the first and last of those items are what make the film so special.

As stated, Bushe and Greg Flanagan’s script may be small, but its dense, with actual consequence. It’s also lovingly told…or rather, shown. There’s not a ton of dialogue and the expressions of these characters show us much more than if they were talking at each other. So…a good little yarn where the stakes are high, the characters have tremendously impactful back-stories and the locale, while decrepit, is somehow exotic. Now, to be clear, it is not a groundbreaking film, nor is it going to surprise you. But for me, much of the film’s charm lies in its ability to stick to its simple tale and, further, to allow the impact of an inevitable close to be focused on the character, instead of the plot.

Our two buddies are terrific. Lewis MacDougall, as the youth trying to make amends for a massively impactful event in his younger days, is terrific, his rough exterior masking a longing for familial love just below the surface. And Pat Shortt, as a troubled vagabond with a purpose, is simply heartbreaking, with a definitive form of mental instability that is usually pushed beyond belief. Not here. If you can’t root for this guy, then you need to read the definition of empathy. Together their bond is almost sacred.

The antagonist (NOT related to the duo’s memories), however, is simply terribly cast. Michael Smiley is one of the most instantly recognizable, prolific, and terrific character actors out of Europe. But there is, alas, a certain sense of comic expectation from his very presence on screen, and, as he’s been cast as the bad guy, it takes far too long for us to get down to his level…and worse, undercuts the film’s end. He’s not bad…in fact, he gives it his all. It’s simply a distracting choice.

Finally, props to a younger actress named Laura Kinsella. About as meek a presence on screen as you’ll see, she somehow maintains her large influence on the goings-on.

Michael Moynihan has designed a world that is the very epitome of the off-season resort town several years after it’s freshness date. Evocative of Thatcher’s England, the town becomes a character in the film…a dark shadow constantly hovering over everything. And Arthur Mulhern’s photography takes full advantage of the grey sheen that seems to perpetually shroud the town. And Janez Dovic’s simple folk music fits the world and the story in a lovely way.

Alas, there does not seem to be any info regarding a US release date for the film, but I’m sure it will make its way to a streaming service soon. When it does, please take a chance on this little gem!

Written on 10/30/2018

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