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It’s the undercurrents you have to watch out for in God’s Creatures. Not just the ones that surge beneath the surface of the shallow fishing grounds off the Kerry coast, either – but also their psychological counterparts, swirling in long-established patterns through the small, unnamed community that sits hunched and sullen by the water’s edge.
This is the surprising setting for the new film from the young American filmmakers Saela Davis and Anna Rose Holmer – whose first collaboration, the heightened inner-city dance drama The Fits, premiered at Venice in 2015. Their follow-up is this sombre, Ireland-set prodigal-son tale, which is playing in the Director’s Fortnight sidebar at Cannes this year. It’s an ambitious if not entirely successful sidestep, buoyed up by a convincingly shivery feel for landscape and two terrific performances from Emily Watson and the busy Paul Mescal, whose drama Aftersun is also screening around the corner in Critics’ Week.
Mescal plays Brian, a young man who returns unannounced to the village after a lengthy absence. Years earlier he split for Australia, though neglected to tell his mother Aileen (Watson) exactly where he was going or what he was up to, and doesn’t appear to have been much in contact since. The moment of their reunion, which takes place at a wake for a drowned fisherman, is expertly played by Watson: her face freezes in shock, which only relaxes into happy surprise after a few uncomfortable seconds.
This abrupt and unexplained homecoming is received less enthusiastically by Brian’s father Con (Declan Conlon) and married sister Emma (Isabelle Connolly), for whom the missing details in his story suggest trouble. But Aileen, whose tough life is split between shifts at the local seafood processing plant and caring for her dementia-stricken father-in-law, is happy to overlook all that, as well as the overall sketchiness of Brian’s plan to revive the family’s failed oyster farm, using funds raised from illegal night fishing trips. A bloody gash to the palm sustained during one of these illicit outings glows livid on the screen – a wet, red harbinger of danger in the gloom, and an ominous breach in this young man’s outer layer of charm and self-assurance.
Shane Crowley’s script keeps these tensions spluttering away on a low heat for a while, until an accusation levelled against Brian by Sarah (Aisling Franciosi), an old flame from his pre-Australia days and one of Aileen’s colleagues at the plant, causes Aileen’s maternal instincts to override her better judgement. This incident splits the community in ways that are simultaneously dramatic and invisible: sides are silently taken, loaded looks are exchanged, but life goes on much as it did before – superficially, at least.
At this point, the plot’s mechanisms start to turn in more predictable ways, and the broader point about collective complicity is hammered away at in monologues that perhaps feel a little too polished in context. And for all its briny atmospherics, the climactic mother-son scene also feels like a contrivance: two actors walking, or perhaps wading, towards a cosmically preordained end.
It’s at odds with the incredible psychological delicacy and precision which Watson brings to Aileen’s reckoning with the consequences of her choice, as well as her growing awareness that the status quo she was trying to preserve – and which the village at large still seems prepared to accommodate – in fact died with Brian’s initial departure all those years ago, and can never be genuinely recovered. In its own appealingly brooding, brine-flecked way, God’s Creatures is a multiverse movie.
96 mins. Showing at the Cannes Film Festival. A UK release is TBC