The Star Wars sequels are but the latest movies to find inspiring locations in the Irish landscape. Character goes with the territory.
EFFECTIVE use of landscape is one of the strongest tools in the film-maker’s arsenal. For the viewer, landscape can best be appreciated in the cinema. As the US director Michael Moore has said: “If you’re watching Lawrence of Arabia on an iPhone, you’re not watching Lawrence of Arabia.” It is a cliché of film pitches that the landscape is the “other character” but, like many clichés, sometimes it’s true.
When you tour around Ireland, taking in the lakes and hills of Glendalough, Co Wicklow or the floodplains of the Shannon at Clonmacnoise, Co Offaly, it is striking that so many sites of great beauty were colonised by monastic settlements. It seems the monk, like the film-maker, has unrivalled eyes for the spirit and power of a place.
The two traditions recently collided on Skellig Michael off the coast of Kerry, when the rocky outcrop was used as a location for Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens, which opens next month. There was filming there, too, for Episode VIII recently. Much controversy erupted, as the Unesco world-heritage site was home to a monastic settlement from as early as the 6th century. The Irish state was accused of Hollywood grovelling, of allowing an international corporate money machine to acquire the visuals of this sacred site for profit, and without even having to pay a fee. Site watchers and birdwatchers from the National Monuments Service were deployed to keep an eye on the shoot.
Though film crews are notoriously hard-wearing on venues, the scuffling boots of some film technicians isn’t exactly on a par with the destruction of Palmyra by Isis. The original monastic settlers must have disturbed a few puffin-breeding sites in their time, and indeed most likely scrambled the local birds’ eggs for breakfast. Yet the spin-off benefits to the tourist industry from Irish film-making is a subtle affair. Nobody can dictate to film-makers how to present a landscape, but there is no doubt the financial impact of a successful shoot on a tourism destination can be incalculable.
The British director David Lean created the establishing shot of modern Irish film landscapes in Ryan’s Daughter (1970). It opens with Sarah Miles losing her parasol to the wind off the Cliffs of Moher. What follows in this visually spectacular film is a highly romanticised attention to landscape. Apart from the Co Clare opening, the rest of the film is shot on the Dingle peninsula in Kerry. There are spectacular visuals of the sea, the sky and the islands, including the northernmost of the Blasket Islands, which looks from the east like a giant man made of rock lying asleep in the sea. Big dramatic action is required to compete with such backdrops, and Lean’s film supplies plenty of passion.
The west of Ireland has attracted many dramatic auteurs, or at least encourages this tendency. Jim Sheridan’s The Field (1990) has the landscape as both setting and subject matter, as the story from John B Keane’s play involves a bitter fight over land. Filmed in Leenane, Co Galway, the characters’ emotions, like the west of Ireland weather, are intense and tempestuous. The weather was so bad during the filming that a rain machine had to be brought on the set to maintain continuity on the occasional dry day.
John Michael McDonagh’s engagement with the landscape of the west continues in this operatic key, though with a post-Tarantino sensibility. The Guard (2011) plays out its intense drama against the background of Connemara. The visuals of Calvary (2014) were directly influenced by Lean’s Ryan’s Daughter, according to the film-maker. The sweeping aerial shots of Ben Bulben start as visual spectaculars but, as the story about clerical sex abuse darkens, the mountain becomes a malignant and oppressive crag.
The trauma at the heart of the film is framed within wide land and seascapes, and its violent denouement is played out on a broad beach. Ironically, the child who provides the heart of the film is painting the landscape on an easel.
While the west of Ireland inspires a neo-romantic aesthetic, the midlands are painted in a gentle water colour. Lenny Abrahamson’s Garage (2007) has accents as flat as its terrain. The landscape is never fetishised, but permeates the action nonetheless. A gently spectacular sunrise over a midlands lake and island is almost pretty, but not quite. There are forests, but no romantic carpet of bluebells as in Ryan’s Daughter; just grass for the horse to munch.
The script is also understated. The lake provides an airy backdrop for a key emotional scene between the lead actor Pat Shortt and Tom Hickey. “I’m bad some days,” says Hickey, staring at the lake and articulating the midland masculine angst that would later come to be defined by the memoirs of Michael Harding. But this landscape is harsh in its own flat way; when Shortt’s character, Josie, goes into the river at the end, you know the small-town midland ambience has eaten him alive.
In this year’s visually striking You’re Ugly Too, Mark Noonan provided a prettier aesthetic for the midlands. With golden-hued tawny boglands, yellow-hearted dog daisies and majestic wind turbines, it is suffused with a golden light. The story of a man struggling with internal demons to become a fit guardian for his orphaned niece is played out in subtle gestures. What lingers is a sense of the two central characters, uncle and niece, trying to find their best selves. They are suspended in a beautiful but indifferent place.
The east coast has seen plenty of action too, not least the bloodsoaked opening 20-odd minutes of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998), in which a Co Wexford beach staged the Normandy landings of the Second World War.
John Crowley’s Brooklyn provides us with sandy Wexford beaches of a more benign type during the film’s final section, which is set in Ireland. Crowley’s beach is pretty; its waves break in gentle foam, like the lace on a well-cut ladies’ blouse. The aesthetic at work here is chocolate-boxy, rococo. This isn’t a landscape that will buffet you about, like the west, or swallow you alive, like the midlands. It is friendlier, and painted to appeal, as the drama concerns a visiting emigrant’s desire for her home place.
A more hostile atmosphere pervades the grey skies and greyer mood of the Co Wicklow beach that plays host to the rich kids in Lenny Abrahamson’s What Richard Did (2012). These dunes and beaches are plain. There are shivering Irish palm trees and cut hedges. The gardens and parks are cultivated, like the characters. But no amount of cultivation will completely erase the savage from the human heart.
Tellingly, the central assault scene is shot in the dark, in a deliberately opaque framing. There is no defining blow. The malignant action is blended into the night-time confusion of the territory.
There are magnificent landscapes in Tomm Moore’s Oscar-nominated animation feature Song of the Sea (2014). Ben Bulben features again, as does an island shaped like a man. The terrain is both familiar and strange. Not overly romanticised, the landscape is strewn with old washing machines and debris. The movie invents a magical and spectacular map of Ireland as two children find their way home to their beloved west-coast lighthouse from a Dublin atmosphere they find oppressive.
A country’s cinematic landscape becomes part of the definition of a national landscape and creates a kind of map. It blends with other visual-heritage aspects to become a vital part of how we see ourselves. The animation style of Moore’s Cartoon Saloon company borrowed heavily from the designers of the Book of Kells. He, too, is following in the footsteps of the holy men. But then, both monk and film-maker are in pursuit of the sublime.
The movies themselves often attract devotees as full of religious fervour as did the monastic settlements. Let the Jedi worshippers line up on the pier at Portmagee.