In the remote west of Ireland on the eve of the Great Famine, Colmán Sharkey (Dónall Ó Héalai), fisherman, father, and husband, takes in a Napoleonic War veteran (Dara Devaney). As crops start to rot in the field, the pair travel to meet the local landlord and discuss how they can save their community. But when disaster strikes Colmán is forced to fight for his survival and sanity as he is pursued by British police.
Arracht won’t likely be remembered for its intriguing concept or its celebration of the Irish language, but instead for its timely release. Director/writer Tomás Ó Súilleabháin’ film debut featured heavily at the Dublin International Film Festival in February shortly before the Covid-19 pandemic shut down and recently headlined the first online edition of the Galway Film Fleadh. The film is a bold indication of the industry’s resilience, and I hope is the first step in a whole new way of bringing regional cinema to viewers more regularly.
Back to Arracht; for a feature debut, it’s impressive. Ó Súilleabháin captures the essence of the rugged Connemara coast’s cold shades of rock grey and storm blue. Even when the sun is out he shows us that the community’s worn wooden boats and squat thatched cottage are built through struggle with a land that could turn deadly. It’s the perfect backdrop for the looming dread of the Great Famine. Ó Súilleabháin perfectly juxtaposes this barely contained wildness with the desperate anarchy that follows after the crop blight hits protagonist Colmán’s community swift and hard later on in the film.
Where Ó Súilleabháin struggles is in crafting a narrative that fulfils the promise of its premise. After a tense opening act, the story lags in the middle as its machinations as a revenge thriller change to focus on Colmán’s search for personal redemption in caring for an orphan. His character motivations established earlier are cast aside as he builds his relationship with the adopted Kitty (Saise Ní Chuinn), before the final act throws him back into conflict with Patsy. It makes for an uneven story and an ultimately flat ending; a real shame given the excellent opening 30 minutes of the film.
The film’s cast is comparatively unknown; the most recognisable face to mainstream audiences is Michael McElhatton, of Game of Thrones fame, as the wearily patronising British estate landlord. His nuanced performance is a highlight amidst other broader acting performances. Lead Dónall Ó Héalai delivers in a physically demanding role without communicating the true complexities of his character. Dara Devaney, as the villainous Patsy, also offers an uncomplicated performance. In fact, the film is delivered in the style of a melodrama; that’s suitable for a period film, but it also makes characters seem slightly one-dimensional.
The title Arracht – meaning ‘monster’ – is left deliberately ambiguous. Is the film’s antagonist the monster? Is it British colonial control? Or is the monster the famine itself, looming large from the very outset? This ambiguity contributes to the film’s weakness. It’s not a revenge thriller nor historical drama as powerful as fellow famine film Black 47. It’s a family drama wrapped up in the guise of something else. This lack of identity weighs the film down in a slow middle and flat ending which could have delivered a more impactful punch with a little more screen time and nuanced acting.
Arracht is more family drama than revenge thriller, contributing to uneven pacing and a flat final act. With tweaking, it could have been a classic of Irish cinema. 6/10.
Watch out for Arracht in theatres once they re-open soon!