The Irish Landscape on Film
Welcome to Ireland – a tiny island almost precariously perched on the edge of Europe, surrounded by water, and subject to the whims of the Atlantic and her inconsiderate weather systems. Here, we have a very particular relationship with our landscape.
Generations of Irish people have lived off the land while many battled the trauma that came about when the land failed us – millions died or emigrated because of failed potato crops, for example. The land has historical and social meaning that goes beyond mere turf, soil, grass and rocks. It’s not surprising, therefore, that landscape as represented in Irish cinema very often has a leading role, even to the extent that it upstages main characters and narrative themes. The land is an enduring presence in Irish film, but the meaning it is imbued with has changed dramatically over the years. How we have chosen to portray those spaces on screen and the meanings we have assigned the land, the sea and the sky, says a lot about the type of cinema we’re making and what we’re choosing to say about ourselves.
In American cinema, landscape is intimately linked to certain film genres. The wide expansive plains are perfectly suited to the Western and the road movie, for example. The terrain fits the imperatives of the genre – vast horizons and a seemingly endless sky provide an intimidating presence, drawing both the eye and the mind’s eye outwards. Ireland is too small a geographical entity to satisfactorily tell these stories of mythic excess. We do, however, have some recurring tropes of our own. The idea of a return in particular pops up time and time again. In films such as The Quiet Man, The Butcher Boy, Into The West and Pat Collins’s latest film Silence, the spectacle of nature and the ritual of the journey are transformed into a pilgrimage and a spiritual homecoming. All of these films foreground nature and landscape as a part of this spiritual homecoming.
Classic ‘outsider’ representations of Irish cinema certainly put forward the idea of a nostalgic return – with landscape playing a central part in this endeavor. John Ford’s The Quiet Man (1952) famously presents a picture-postcard perfect image of Ireland, one which John Wayne’s Sean Thornton sees as an idyll completely apart from an America sagging with “lousy money”. Inisfree, we are told is “another name for heaven”. His return to his mother’s homeland is not only a matter of getting from point A to point B, it is a spiritual journey and a redemptive one.
But Ford’s Ireland is a parkland, a garden. His is the Ireland of the post-colonial outsider, complete with rose-tinted spectacles and a picturesque manicured view. It is in complete opposition to the hard primitivism of Robert Flaherty’s Man Of Aran or Jim Sheridan’s The Field, based on John B’s Keane’s play of the same name. The land in these films is neither idyllic nor easily controlled. It is wild, unruly, and the source of constant anxiety for the men and women who try to live off it. The Field in particular is devastating. The final shot of The Bull McCabe attempting to drive back the waves from the shore showcases a man defeated by a lifelong and complex relationship with the land.
The journey motif appears once again in Into The West, a film which successfully captures the mythic elements of great American cinema but transfers them on to a contemporary Irish landscape, specifically a return to primitive roots in the West of Ireland. This idea is spectacularly subverted in The Butcher Boy, however. Here, Francis Brady, the traumatised protagonist, journeys to Bundoran, the site of his parents honeymoon. Once again, his journey is a return – we infer that Bundoran is also the site of his own beginning, his origin. However the nostaligic, touristic ideal is destroyed when Francis imagines a nucleur bomb destroying a beautiful lake region, a triumphant mushroom cloud destroying a paradise otherwise perfect for a Bord Failte ad.
Contemporary Irish filmmakers have mostly avoided a direct interaction with Irish landscape. Postmodern Irish cinema has balked against the location-specific films of the past by purposefully avoiding a strong sense of place. When Brendan Met Trudy and About Adam, for example, both present us with an urban, wealthy, post-colonial environment. The landscape, and the historical meaning the landscape carries, is dismissed in favour of a homogenous urbanized cityscape. The past and its traumatic meaning is ignored and the terrain is re-purposed for younger audiences, rather than nostalgic diasporic ones. Hollywood films made in Ireland have taken over this diasporic view – PS I Love You and Leap Year, both famously present a touristic view of Irish landscape that, to Irish audiences is utterly implausible: watching Hilary Swank walk from Wicklow to Dublin in the opening scenes of PS I Love You left Irish audiences scoffing into their multiplex popcorn. Landscape can therefore also be a canny indicator of authenticy, it would appear. Or, in this case, inauthenticity.
Within this cultural context Pat Collins’s new film Silence is all the more intriguing. Collins is fearless in confronting a forgotten past and confronting the specificity of location in a film that is at once contemporary and timeless. Silence presents us with Eoin, an Irish sound engineer living in Berlin who is given an unusual brief: he must travel to the quietest places in Ireland and record them. His journey quickly becomes much more than a quest for interesting sound material. It becomes a homecoming for Eoin and, in ways, for the audience too as we experience sublimely beautiful Irish landscapes through the fresh eyes of the returning emigrant.
Eoin travels from boglands to remote mountains and intimidating seascapes, a particular highlight being his visits to Inisbofin and Tory Island, where he meets with life-long residents of the islands. These conversations about the past, the present, and the changes brought to the islands by the onset of modernity feel improvised – and, in fact, many were. The film intercuts these conversations with shots of empty dilapidated houses and old black and white footage of the islanders from decades past. The past is foregrounded in this landscape. But, crucially, it is not an idyllic past. One stand-out moment of old footage shows a couple of men drowning a dog from a boat, and the audience is reminded of the cruelty of necessity. This past certainly wasn’t perfect, but it is there nonetheless. These folk memories can almost be seen in our landscape, in the old houses and well-worn pathways around Ireland. Ignoring this past, Silence seems to suggest would be to our detriment.