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Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Irish Film Marathon Part 1

For this first part I will be reviewing The Commitments, a film made in 1991, directed by Alan Parker and adapted from a novel by one of Ireland's most successful authors, Roddy Doyle.
The Commitments is one of Ireland's most beloved films frequently topping lists of best Irish films, but it is also highly praised by international audiences and critics alike as it is an extremely likeable film.

It is not exactly what you may have in mind when thinking of a "great" film. It has no ground breaking technical attributes, no award winning performances, no important message and no sensational or particularly thrilling events. And yet I would not hesitate to call it a great film.
Perhaps due to it's sheer likeability, the way it takes a group of very realistic yet at the same time larger than life characters many or even most of whom are very unlikeable and makes such a charming and enjoyable film.

The Commitments tells the story of a young music lover living in the North of Dublin in the late 80's - early 90's ie. around the same time the film was made. Of course there have been quite a few films previously focusing upon a bands adventures and troubles, generally presented in a comedic manner (the cult classic This Is Spinal Tap! and the lesser known Leningrad Cowboys Go America come to mind instantly), but none of them have taken the approach The Commitments takes to the subject.
For a start, the main character, the aforementioned young man named Jimmy, is in fact to be the bands manager, thus the film takes a more detached view of the musicians than other films has as it views the events from the point of view of the manager whose interest in the band is mainly commercial rather than musical. This leads to a far more interesting approach as well as a refreshing portrayal of the musicians. They are shown and egotistical and constantly bickering amongst each other, some just want to play music of course, but others are in it for the fame, others for the money, others for entirely different reasons. Jimmy constantly battles to keep them all together and playing which I think it's a pretty accurate representation of a manager's role, which is mainly that of keeping the artists in check and making sure they don't get to full of themselves and to defuse the friction within the band. He realises that together they all have a chance of becoming far more successful than they ever could on their own.
So all the events that take place within the film have a bigger impact on Jimmy than on anyone else, for if the band is to fail and split up each member could easily create there own band or join an already existing one, but it would not be so simple for Jimmy. Combined with this is the fact that he himself has aspirations to fame and fortune that surpass any of the other band members, this is shown through the hilarious scenes in which he interviews himself. One could argue that he is only using the band as a means to an end, but seeing the energy and passion he puts into his role one can see that a lot of his hopes and dreams hang in the balance.
I liked the fact that the film chose to highlight this side of the music world rather than the traditional view of the musicians, it chose to show the musicians as a pretentious bickering bunch and focused rather on the manager's role in the proceedings.

But I digress far too much, I had been attempting to summarise the plot before going off into that rave, so I will resume that attempt.
Jimmy gathers together a band and commences the rehearsals and other such things. They eventually play a couple of small gigs but are troubled by their internal divisions. Amusingly their music style is Soul music, a style usually associated with Black Americans, but as Jimmy puts it, "Irish are the Blacks of Europe, and Dubliners are the Blacks of Ireland, and North Dubliners are the Blacks of Dublin." After a while they manage to rise to a small degree of local fame and soon enough the opportunity of a life time presents itself, but will they take it or will their divisions put an end to things beforehand?

The film is very bitter sweet, in fact it is one of the most bitter sweet films I've seen. Some attempts at conveying this can fail utterly, be mistaken for black comedy or be imbalanced, but The Commitments gets it just right. It is just as life is, bitter sweet. One cannot help but be charmed by the scenes of companionship and the bond formed while in a band that are displayed at times, or laugh at the hilarious antics of some characters, the vulgar language of others and the multitude of oddities that make this film overwhelmingly Irish and entirely unique. 
However all this proceedings do take place in an extremely depressing environment, for Dublin at the time was very poor and run down, filled with unemployment, poverty and many, many children. All this is shown in the film in a realistic manner, it isn't really used for laughs in a forced way but shown in a matter of fact way that at times creates amusing situations and at times is saddening.
But this isn't the only darker element to the film, the characters themselves live in poverty and in most cases unhappiness and are in search of identities to set them apart from the countless other factory workers and unemployed people. So all the while they are rehearsing and fooling around, there is still an underlying insecurity and unhappiness. One can clearly see how much the band means to each one of them, but they seem nonetheless set on annoying each other as much as possible and gradually disintegrating. This rather inevitable course does add a rather sobering air to the film as a whole.
But thankfully it does detract from the comedy, for the film is absolutely hilarious. It is a film that is hilarious without even seeming to try. No contrived situations or over the top characters, just every day situations and the types of people you'd meet anywhere in Ireland, but it is precisely this everyday "Irishness" that makes the film so appealing and amusing,
Take for example the vocabulary used in the film, of course it is still recognisable English, but it is so vulgar and so colourful that at times it seems like a different language, combine this with the fact that the Irish accent is somehow naturally suited for comedy and you get hilarious conversations throughout the entire film.
But of course even with the natural ability to provoke laughter Irish has, the film would be nowhere near as funny without it's brilliantly written script.
Roddy Doyle
Roddy Doyle is one of Ireland's most acclaimed and successful writers, thankfully he played a large part in adapting his own book to the screen, I find this gives the best on screen results, for even if it strays from the source material, it does so with the writers consent (as in the original Brighton Rock).
In the case of the Commitments, I can't comment on how it compares to the source material as I haven't read it. But I've been assured that Doyle's writing contains the same vulgarity and are as resolutely Irish as this film is.

 I find that The Commitments was at it's best during it's comedic scenes and it's scenes showing everyday life in Dublin at the time. However it wasn't entirely composed of such scenes, a dramatic counter point was needed and at times I felt this fell rather flat. In most cases it worked, but I found the various affairs centering around the three women and the elderly musician to be rather brief, they would have definitely benefited from a bit more screen time as they are left rather vague. I realise that this was the intention, but it just didn't really work for me. However, the scenes involving one of the women singers and her family in law and boring boyfriend were interesting and I feel should have been developed a bit more as they added an interesting element told from a woman's point of view rather in an otherwise rather male dominated film.

As I'm sure you would have guessed, this is a film very focused on music. The entire film revolves around it, so I suppose it's fitting that there are lengthy scenes of the band performing. As much as I admired the way these scenes combined comedy and genuine musical ability, I couldn't help but think they were rather poorly shot. Shooting a band performing is apparently not a small task, but I feel Alan Parker and his crew could have done better here, as it felt a bit to close up at times and overall didn't convey an adequate feel of a band performing. I think perhaps Parker isn't an inventive enough director to make something great out of footage of a band playing, but I was nonetheless slightly disappointed, especially seeing as the rest of the film was relatively well shot. Of course Alan Parker has never ranked amongst the greatest directors, and probably never will be, and as much as I admire some of his work, most notably Pink Floyd The Wall, I still think he is not necessarily a very interesting director from a technical and visual point of view, he certainly knows how to tell a story, and has tried his hand at a wide variety of works, but he lacks that distinctive and powerful style that the greatest of directors automatically brings to a film.

Large casts such as the one on display here in The Commitments can be a problem, famous actors can overshadow the more talented ones, or the big names will only appear in various small supporting roles leaving the main acting load to a mediocre actor. Here however, the large cast was made up mainly of unknown actors, or at least actors unknown on an international level, furthermore they are all talented, some more than other of course, but fortunately, the more talented ones are the ones that get the more screen time thus the lesser actors are still given their chance to shine in the smaller roles while the better ones really carry the film. The cast was mainly chosen for their musical experience rather than there acting talent, but many of them give surprisingly good performances.
Interestingly enough, none of these actors ever rose to such heights again, some such as Robert Arkins who plays the main character Jimmy, never really worked again in film. Others such as Colm Meaney who had appeared in over 100 films mainly in small sometimes forgettable roles, he's essentially become one of those guys whose is constantly popping up on screen but whose name you never know.

The Commitments is a film Ireland is proud of and rightfully so in my opinion, for instead of it coming across as a film by an American or even English director focusing on Ireland and going "look, how funny these Irish are" instead it is told from a very Irish point of view,  and is essentially very heart warming and quite inspiring at times despite the constant conflicts between the characters. Ireland at the time was very much in search of an identity, as was the Irish film industry and that is what this film essentially represents, for it shows that the Ireland had a great amount of competent actors, great musicians and fantastic writers, which is something one seems to forget when thinking about Ireland, as usually it's the Civil War, the IRA and other such horrors that come to mind. This film showed that they weren't just a nation filled with violence and hatred but were also capable of producing films that make several bigger Hollywood films pale in comparison.
Ireland had always had a long tradition of musicians and other artists, despite never having a very strong film industry. But that was changed with the arrival of this film and it's worldwide success which gave a much needed boost to the industry and helped in get to where it is today.
Furthermore, it also won the BAFTA for Best Film, which I'm sure was something of a triumph in Ireland, for to be awarded such an award by a nation that they had essentially considered their enemies for so long, must have been very satisfying.

All in all The Commitments is a great film, it's not perfect but it succeeds in being one of the finest comedies I've ever seen as well as a interesting portrayal of Dublin at the time and a heart-warming story that avoids any cliches and makes for a most pleasing and satisfying watch without any false feel good air to it.
I'd highly recommend it to pretty much everyone, if you're going to see one Irish film, you should make it this one!

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