It is a double-feature from Ireland on day four, with the latest animation from Cartoon Saloon, Wolfwalkers and pre-Brexit border drama Wildfire.
Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon have been going from strength to strength since releasing The Secret of Kells in 2009. This debut film, along with follow-up Song of the Sea (2014) and their latest release Wolfwalkers, now make up an unofficial trilogy exploring different facets of Irish mythology. The film uses fantasy to comment on the violent history between England and Ireland, through the eyes of two young girls from very different worlds who form an unlikely friendship.
In seventeenth-century Kilkenny, Robyn Goodfellow (Honor Kneafsey) has arrived from England with her father Bill (Sean Bean), who has got a position as a master hunter for the Lord Protector (Simon McBurney) and the English occupying forces. Bill is tasked with ridding the surrounding forest of the wolves that have been terrorising farmers. Some of the townsfolk believe it is the work of the Wolfwalkers, magical folk who live in the wild and can transform into wolves. Robyn soon learns they are real and are under threat from the English invaders, and so must join forces with young Wolfwalker Mebh Óg MacTíre (Eva Whittaker) to ensure their survival.
Setting a children’s film during the Irish Confederate Wars is a fascinating decision by the filmmakers. It shows young audiences a dark chapter in the relationship between England and Ireland, with the English forces most definitely cast as the villains of the piece, bringing a dark and cloudy Puritanism, with the Lord Protector’s zealous religiosity presented in grim contrast to the colour and brightness of the Wolfwalkers’ “pagan” spirituality. The filmmakers go further with this contrast by allowing Robyn to be drawn away from her English upbringing and toward helping Mebh and the wolves, following her heart in defiance of the powers-that-be.
These ideas and themes are explored through the beautiful 2D animation which draws influence from Disney and Studio Ghibli but brings in Irish and English traditions to make it very much a signature style. The town and castle of Kilkenny appears influenced by woodcuts of the time, designed in grey symmetry, while the Wolfwalkers and their forest world are designed with a more organic flourish. Mebh and her mother Moll’s (Maria Doyle Kennedy) flowing red hair, often filled with leaves and twigs, closely resemble the tangled root systems that comprise their subterranean lair.
Cartoon Saloon are a small animation studio who are giving the majors a run for their money. Their gorgeous animation style and unique cultural perspective provides a thematically rich entertainment for all ages. Directors Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart have taken the responsibility to draw attention to important historical issues that are still in play today and offer an important lesson that we must strive to put aside our differences in favour of unity, especially if everyone around you is calling for more division. With the dark clouds of Brexit looming on the horizon, this is truer now in Britain than ever before.
Directors: Tomm Moore, Ross Stewart
Cast: Honor Kneafsey, Eva Whittaker, Sean Bean
Writers: Will Collins, (story by Jericca Cleland, Tomm Moore, Ross Stewart)
Wildfire tackles similar themes to the animated Wolfwalkers, but whereas the latter uses family-friendly fantasy to explore the history of Ireland and its legacy, Cathy Brady’s debut feature centres its drama squarely in the real world. The main characters struggle to thrive in a state of physical and emotional limbo as governmental forces beyond their control threaten to destabilise their already fractured existence in a Northern Ireland on the brink of Brexit.
After going missing a year before and living rough, Kelly (Nika McGuigan) returns home to her sister Lauren (Nora-Jane Noone), who greets her with equal parts relief and anger. The women share a very close bond and Lauren’s feelings for her sister override the concerns of her husband Sean (Martin McCann) and aunt Veronica (Kate Dickie) that Kelly might be mentally disturbed. The same concerns were made about their mother, who died when the sisters were children and in their small town, situated on the border between the north and south of Ireland, blood is thicker than water, but family legacy runs deep.
During the opening credits of Wildfire, there is a montage of news footage covering incidents of violence between the IRA and British government forces in Northern Ireland, which turns into footage of the Good Friday agreement, designed to end the conflict in the region. Then finally a more recent news report shows how Brexit threatens to reignite clashes across the Irish border. This montage cleverly situates the drama within this wider political context, drawing parallels between the state of the region and the state of the two women who find themselves at risk of their own violent conflagration.
Even though writer/director Brady places the drama within this moment of uncertainty, the focus is definitely on the relationship of these sisters as they are cast by their town as “difficult women”, who should be dealt with out of sight rather than listened to. The sisters are still dealing with the death of their mother years later, and like those who lived through the Troubles, are being told to put it behind them and get on with life. But that is not how trauma works. No matter how much the women try to numb the pain, the pain is always there. When these women give voice to their trauma or try to understand it, the world deems them unwell, an indictment of a society’s unwillingness to face its demons.
The central relationship between the sisters is beautifully portrayed by Noone and the late McGuigan (who tragically died last year). They effectively show the inner rage across their faces, as the women have vast experience of suffering in silence. As they come across revelations about their family’s past, Lauren’s transition from grief to righteous anger is absolutely believable. Although the film doesn’t quite bring a lot of these different strands together by the closing moments, it is the lasting love between these two sisters that resonates and proves Brady has fashioned an accomplished debut drama.
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