It’s understandable if you haven’t seen many Irish films (any installment of the Leprechaun horror franchise and Janeane Garofalo in The Matchmaker — as worthy and adorable as they all are — don’t count here). Irish films are simply harder to come across in U.S. movie theaters. They wind up in art-houses. The accents can be difficult. Sometimes you need subtitles to know what’s being said on screen. The subject matter has been, at times, pretty rugged — a lot of films about “The Troubles.” It’s not all Shamrock Shakes out there. It is, in fact, never Shamrock Shakes.
Irish Film 101, ten essentials, starts here. Take notes.
And speaking of The Troubles, here’s one all about it. Before the Bourne films, director Paul Greengrass took on a terrible day in Irish history, when British Army soldiers opened fire on a 1972 civil rights demonstration in Derry, Northern Ireland. In the end, 14 people lost their lives and nothing got solved. But this is a bracing account of the hows and whys, absorbing and watchable if not exactly “entertaining.”
All those underdog movies from the U.K. in the 1990s — the ones about unemployed male strippers, incarcerated flower gardeners, and brass bands struggling during the Miners’ Strike — all those got made because of this film. The sweet, hope-filled story of a bunch of down-and-outers who come together to form a blue-eyed soul band, featuring a cast of unknowns (look closely, there’s Glen Hansard of Once), was HUGE over there. It was even a big hit in America, where we love experiencing the incongruity of pale white gingers like this movie’s then-16-year-old Andrew Strong belting out Otis Redding songs and making us feel it.
The Crying Game
One of Ireland’s most acclaimed filmmakers, Neil Jordan, caused a sensation in 1992 with the story of an IRA kidnapping and the woman who causes it all to unravel. That woman, of course, played by Academy Award-nominated Jaye Davidson, was possibly the first real trans character most mainstream audiences had ever laid eyes on. In fact, Davidson’s body became part of the “secret” that was ultimately used as weirdly reductive marketing for the film.
At the height of The Troubles, Terri Hooley decided to open a record shop in bombed-out Belfast and call it “Good Vibrations.” It became a hub for the beginnings of Ireland’s punk scene, spawning bands — Stiff Little Fingers among them — and an ethos that challenged the warring mindset all around it. Good Vibrations is an affectionate, exciting, re-creation of real-life events. It’s also the kind of movie that film critics like to call “rousing,” because it makes you want to go out and smash something, punk-rock-style, and then build a better version in its place.
Capital A-arthouse here. From Turner Prize-winning artist Steve McQueen (who would go on to make 12 Years a Slave), this uncompromising study of Irish political prisoner Bobby Sands (played by Michael Fassbender) — an activist who went on a hunger strike in 1981 to protest the British government’s control of Ireland — is demanding, quietly brutal, and perfectly composed. It also features an unnerving 17-minute take of Sands in conversation with a priest about the IRA’s motives and demands. It’ll make you hate Margaret Thatcher all over again.
This out-of-nowhere hit is the one you’ve probably seen already. It’s the simple story of two lonely, struggling musicians (played by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova) who come together in a musical and romantic collaboration that allows them both to grow into what they need to become. It’s intimate, naturalistic, and moving — and it made buckets of money even though it cost about $150,000 to make. The soundtrack became a hit, too, the main song, “Falling Slowly,” won an Academy Award, and the film was eventually turned into a Broadway musical. Basically unavoidable. And why would you want to?
The other Neil Jordan movie on this list — and there could/should be even more, like the critically acclaimed The Butcher Boy, which features Sinead O’Connor in a cameo as the Virgin Mary — is a small, sorrowful fantasy that received mixed reviews and a limited audience, so it deserves a little boost. The story of a fisherman (Colin Farrell) who believes he may have caught a real mermaid in his net, is a thoughtful, quiet, and strange film that dances on the edge of fairy tale and unhappy realism. And if you haven’t gotten on board yet for the talented character actor that Farrell has become (just ignore that leading man face of his), here’s a good place to start.
The Magdalene Sisters
It may actually be easier to watch a film about Protestants and Catholics murdering each other in cold blood than it will be to deal with the horrifying true story of what used to happen, routinely, to teenage Irish girls with the bad luck to get pregnant before marriage. Sent to convents that were essentially prisons, the young women were sentenced to hard labor that often resulted in their deaths, their babies taken from them and given away, and their stories silenced by the Catholic Church, often to the point of committing them to mental institutions as a cover-up. This is the story of four of those young women, and, while important, under no circumstances could be called uplifting.
The Quiet Man
Legendary Irish-American filmmaker John Ford (who directed another classic of Irish film, The Informer, in the 1930s) reunites with his go-to leading man, John Wayne, in the story of a boxer who moves to Ireland to claim his family’s land. Once there, he falls in love with the wild, red-haired Maureen O’Hara and the sparks fly. Don’t believe that? Just watch this trailer, one that makes it seem like they spend all their time fighting, as Wayne repeatedly throws her to the ground. In spite of that, it’s actually sort of a feminist film, as O’Hara refuses to marry Wayne if they’re not on equal footing. Nobody tames this lass.
The heartwarming opposite of The Magdalene Sisters, this witty family comedy involves a 20-year-old woman becoming pregnant and steadfastly refusing to name the father so that she can retain control of her own destiny. Based on a Roddy Doyle novel (the second of the “Barrytown Trilogy,” the first of which was The Commitments), it focuses itself on working-class Ireland with all the dignity and intelligence it deserves.
(This article originally ran on March 18, 2015)
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