Arracht, Tom Sullivan’s Irish-language Famine drama, is a briny story of purgatorial survival. A close-up of water or what looks to be water opens the feature. We could be looking at primordial ooze, life and death brimming beneath its surface. A voiceover calls out to God to live or to die – this too is unclear. The prayer is as formless to us as the seawater that splashes about at the camera.
Quick cuts of haggard faces and the skeletal body of a figure come and go, more questions than answers. Then, daylight and a chance for our sea legs and heads to touch solid land and get our bearings. Only the island that we find ourselves on, more a collection of stones and falling hazards, seems less solid than the water somehow.
It’s here, away from the mainland and the local authorities, that Colmán Sharkey (Dónall Ó Héalai) and his brother Gavin, produce the poitín that puts them at the centre of their seaside community and helps pay the property rates to the local lieutenant (Michael McElhatton).
On the mainland, things are busy with Gavin and Colmán bartering and bantering with their neighbours as they make their way from the harbour to home. A hen for a bottle seems a fair deal. The camerawork shows a vibrant hustle and bustle in the community. Happiness and a modest living are eked out of the soil and the sea.
Scenes of Colmán’s home life, laughter and love with his wife and son, tending to the crops and caring for the animals, show us the fullness of his rustic lifestyle. But there is, in the muted colours and quieter moments an undercurrent of dread. Anything that’s drawn so perfectly is surely marked for ruination.
As sudden as a storm blowing in from the sea Patsy Kelly (Dara Devaney) arrives as menace personified. The scuttlebutt around Patsy is that he’s a deserter from the navy. He claims an honourable discharge but there’s some doubt. Colmán takes Patsy into his home as a favour to the parish priest.
Devaney doesn’t hide the darkness in Patsy. There’s a dangerous intent in every action he takes. His manner is so sinister that the only possible reaction to his presence is a knee-jerk, bristly dislike. O’Sullivan uses the film’s tight interiors to force Patsy closer to Colmán and his family. Close-ups of faces and sustained takes ensure that we too must cosy up to this unpleasant man.
Patsy talks of the potato blight as well, still at a comfortable distance from the Sharkey crops but as certain a danger as Patsy himself. A more immediate worry is the raising of land rates for the town. Colmán wishes to make their case to the lieutenant, and after a scuffle with some of his enforcers, reluctantly brings Patsy along to offer apologies and smooth things over.
The manor is busy with preparing wagons for leaving. The lieutenant knows it’s time to get out of Dodge. O’Sullivan’s treatment of this character, a callous landlord, who should easily trump Patsy as a villain, is deeper than expected. The lieutenant is not a moustache-twirling big bad. Instead, we see a man who has clearly failed himself and his duties. We don’t pass over into sympathy entirely, but there’s an inch of wiggle room there, which is more than these types of characters are usually allowed.
The lieutenant’s malice is shown by ignorant condescension towards the tenants’ concerns. How are they to eat if there are no crops? How can they fish if they have to sell their boats and netting to keep up with the increase in rates? The lieutenant will not listen. He expresses an affection for the land itself, but does not care about its people at all. He would rather they sing and play the tin whistle than air genuine concerns to him.
Colmán becomes frustrated with the lieutenant and attempts to bring him back on side with a fistful of money. This comes off as disrespectful and brings the lieutenant out of his funk. He lashes out at Colmán, saying: “I don’t want my last night in this beautiful place to be ruined.”
The tension upstairs is set against violent destruction elsewhere as Patsy intimidates the goons that he encountered earlier. The cutting between two intense encounters builds to a horrifying conclusion. Downstairs, Patsy has taken his bloody revenge.
Colmán is too late to stop Patsy. When the dust settles, there is only disaster for Colmán, who walks into the gory aftermath. A close-up on Colmán’s face stuck between rage and despair says it plainly: all is lost.
A title card brings us two years into the future, deep into the Famine, and back on the Sharkeys’ uninviting island distillery. Things are just about comprehensible as the action shifts back to the surreal nightmare-scape seen in the opening sequence. What can be gleaned is doom, for Colmán and all that he holds dear there has only been misery. Bearded and gaunt, he’s what’s left of the family, and he’s barely hanging on to life.
The island is a purgatorial bridge between a hellish existence and an afterlife that seems closer and more inviting than ever. Called by the voices of his dead wife and child, Colmán enters the sea. So too does the camera, and as it holds on his face, we see resignation reluctantly give way to something else.
Something is calling him back to the mainland. It could be duty, it could be revenge. Whatever it is, it’s enough to live for, at least for now. On the mainland, Colmán sees the desperation of his countrymen as he fends off attacks from squatters taking refuge in his family home. On one trip back, he comes across Kitty (Saise Ní Chuinn), a young girl he takes under his wing and teaches the skills needed to survive.
It’s at this point that the film shifts gear again. We are back to a more straightforward narrative, there’s the usual rhythm of improvement and bonding that comes with survival stories. For Colmán, Kitty can serve as something to protect. She allows him to play the role he’s always played for his family and the wider community. Their relationship offers some stability in unstable times.
Arracht’s survivalist training sequences were a highlight for me. Simple, tender moments that find some inkling of hope in an otherwise hopeless situation. A sequence where Colmán teaches Kitty to row a boat was particularly moving because it was at this point that the necessity of them being together gave way to a familial reliance and trust.
But O’Sullivan is again setting us up for a fall. Colmán and Kitty are grasping at the impossible. Toward the close of the film, there’s a sequence that acts as a counterpoint to the earlier boat-rowing scene. Colmán encourages Kitty to swim towards him. When she flails around in the water gasping for air, he rushes to her rescue, only to be met with a slap in the face. Her fear is that he is training her to survive without him. Her fear is Colmán’s greatest hope for her, because he knows, all too well, that happiness is fleeting.
As was the case with the film’s first act, its final movement can only end with violence. A hunter-prey pursuit sees Colmán and Patsy face-to-face again. The prelude to their confrontation is handled well. The violence is not sensational, nor is there much choreography or spectacle to it. Revenge gives Colmán no satisfaction. If anything, these acts of violence further force him into a life of exile.
With this, the film’s opening begins to take shape for us. The boat that floated aimlessly before now drifts away from the mainland – hell on earth – and back toward the limbo of Colmán’s hideaway, to face a hell of his own making.
Arracht, which means “monster”, premieres on 28 February at the Lighthouse cinema in Smithfield as part of Dublin International Film Festival.