Early in Saela Davis and Anna Rose Holmer’s dark and stately God’s Creatures, screening in Directors’ Fortnight here at Cannes, one of the younger women at a wake in an old Irish fishing village declares that her new baby will definitely be learning to swim. The dead man drowned, a professional risk on the surging waters of the west of Ireland. Even now that the fishing industry has given way to oyster beds suspended in chest-deep water, the farmers wear heavy waders and the worst can happen. The other women are startled. Swimming lessons? That’s not how things are done around here.
Like a gun pulled in a play’s first act, this bit of distaff chat is a clear indicator of where we’re headed; death hovers over every scene that follows, as persistent as the wind that whistles around the single glazing of the workers’ cottages. Fatalism is a habit of mind; what can you do? “We’re all God’s creatures in the dark,” says one woman morosely.
Two stellar performances anchor God’s Creatures, giving both body and soul to a story that could feel thinly predictable in lesser hands. Emily Watson, always extraordinary and never more so than here, plays Aileen O’Hara, stalwart wife, mother and supervisor of the sorting lines at the local shellfish packing plant; Paul Mescal plays her prodigal son. Like so many cinema mammies before her, Watson’s Aileen is a tower of strength physically and emotionally, just as competent working the oyster beds as she is fixing arguments over the kitchen table. Her husband Con (Declan Conlon) has settled into a disagreeable middle age, which shadows the joy she clearly feels when their son Brian suddenly returns from several years in Australia.
Mescal, familiar to fans of television’s Normal People, gives Brian O’Hara such honeyed charm that any disapproval slips off him. Why he didn’t write, return or let anyone know where he was doesn’t matter any more; he twirls his mother round the floor in the pub or hugs her and, as the light in Watson’s eyes tells us, all is right with the world. Nobody presses him for stories of his time away; this village is all they know or need to know. His mother asks once. “You’d be surprised how little I saw. It’s the best thing in the world being here with you,” he replies, hugging her. So that’s that, with another round and a song to come.
It is only gradually that we realize we are seeing him through the eyes of a mother who, like so many mothers, has been in love with her son since he was born. She realizes it herself only after she finds herself unthinkingly lying to protect him. Her alibi saves him. She isn’t alone – the community closes protectively over their golden boy like skin over a wound – but she is the not the sort of woman who tells lies. She has principles. Love isn’t everything; maybe it isn’t even the most important thing.
Writer Shane Crowley allows Fodhla Cronin O’Reilly’s story to unwind as a series of allusions to what is hidden in the depths. There are no expositions, revelations or confessions. So we never do find out what took Brian to Australia or what made him come back – although perhaps we can guess, once we see that jack-the-lad Brian has more than one kind of weather. The animosity between Brian and his father boils over into a pub fight but, far from clearing the air, it makes their relationship murkier than ever, mired in a past that is possibly barely remembered. The disintegration of this little family on the edge of the world rolls towards its final act as inexorably as a classical tragedy. A quietly gloomy story of modest people, but told with majesty.
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