Dir. Tom Collins
That said, I must admit that I loved this movie. My friend Leslie Jordan told me about it a few years ago and I finally got around to watching it. It was Ireland’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film in the 2008 Academy Awards® and a deserving contender. It’s based on the one-act play The Kings of Kilburn High Road and tells the story of a group of young men who left the West of Ireland to go to work in London. One of that group, some thirty years later, has died and all the action takes place on his funeral day. Jackie Flaherty was a champion hooker (Irish: húicéir) racer back in Galway — a hooker is a type of small sailing boat — and on this day his aged father is arriving to take body back home to the West. His five friends, Joe, Shay, Git, Jap and Mairtín gather to wake him and we watch as the backstory unfolds.
This is the story of countless Irish people in England — men, in particular — who left Ireland with the notion of working hard and making enough money to return as ‘kings’ and have a good life in Ireland. For most, that day never comes and the irony of Jackie’s death is that, finally, he gets to go back. (A fine book on this subject, by the way, An Unconsidered People: The Irish in London by Catherine Dunne.) I’ve talked about this subject in earlier newsletters/blogs, most recently when discussing I Could Read the Sky and the song It’s a Long Way from Clare to Here and I admit that it’s one that haunts me. I left Ireland in 1969 to go to work in England and there I saw the men in this film — men who years later would be broken down by hard labour and hard drinking. Men who thought some day to go ‘home’ but would find, in the end, that there was no home there.
The cast is excellent — Colm Meaney as Joe Mullan and Brendan Conroy as Git Miller are particularly outstanding. The soundtrack has won awards and I was taken particularly by the use of old Irish sean-nós songs. Dónal Óg is sung in Irish over the opening credits — “Dónal Óg, if you cross the ocean, take me with you when you are going”. And there’s a beautiful sung version of the prayer A Mhuire na nGrást that occurs at various times throughout the film. The final verse of Donal Óg, again sung in Irish towards the end of the film, takes on a particular poignancy —
“For you took what's before me and what's behind me
Took east and west when you wouldn't mind me
Sun, moon and stars from me you've taken
And God as well if I'm not mistaken”
There were a couple of times during the film when it seemed to me that the time-frame had been dislocated and that all the events happened a whole generation earlier. The story starts with the young men emigrating in 1977 and the events of the film occurring in 2007. It actually made more sense to me — for a number of reasons — that the emigration happened in 1947 and that the events of the day were taking place in 1977. In the end, it’s not important. The power of the story still comes through.
The dialogue is in Irish — hence the Best Foreign Language category — but it’s subtitled and it lends an air of ‘otherness’ to the film that greatly adds to it. Recommended.