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Docudrama is hard to do well. There are many poor-quality examples of the genre which feature scripted scenes that stretch the boundaries of credulity so far that they snap. Yet, when done right, the format (as with the recent American Animals) can be an engaging way to discuss history and entertain.
Citizen Lane centres on art collector Hugh Lane and his project to build a gallery of modern European art in Dublin. Released earlier this year to wide acclaim, it is an ambitious docudrama that explores the life and legacy of a complicated man and very generous benefactor of the visual arts in Ireland.
Here, the focus is on Lane’s campaign for an Irish modern art gallery. A nephew to Lady Gregory, he established the Municipal Gallery of Modern Art in Dublin in 1908 and campaigned for a purpose-built location for the collection. There was a plan for a gallery that would span the River Liffey, but the project didn’t go ahead due to opposition.
In 1913, Lane loaned his collection of paintings to the National Gallery of London. After Lane’s death in 1915, these 39 continental paintings were left to the UK gallery. However, Lane had written an addendum to his will stating this collection was to be gifted to Ireland, though as this was signed but unwitnessed – it had no legal force. The true ownership of these artworks remains controversial to this day. Campaigners argue that Ireland has a moral claim to the art, even if the legal right says that the paintings belong to the London gallery. It’s a dispute that has remained unresolved in the 100 years since Lane’s death.
Lane’s life provides lots of material for a documentary. Directed by Thaddeus O’Sullivan, Citizen Lane condenses much to complete its portrait of the subject. Mark O’Halloran’s innovative script reaches into early 20th century Dublin, a city experiencing a cultural, political and social moment. Here, the documentary shines as interviews with historians, archivists and art experts grapple with Lane’s life and the opposition to his gallery. The plan’s philanthropic impulses annoyed elements of Dublin’s elite. Other critics argued that the corporation’s budget could not be wasted on a gallery while the city responded to the problem of slum dwellings.
Ultimately, this is a documentary about art. The camera lingers over the impressionist paintings in Lane’s collection and marvels at his eye for beauty. Scripted scenes within the documentary are led by an impressive performance from Tom Vaughan-Lawlor (Avengers: Infinity War, Love/Hate) as Hugh Lane. There are short interviews where figures like Lady Gregory (Derbhle Crotty), W.B. Yeats (Peter Campion) and George Moore (Ned Dennehy) recall their encounters with Lane. However, Lane does not engage with the camera. Instead, he is seen conversing with others at key moments in his story. In one scene, Lane argues that it is an illusion to suggest that Dublin faces a binary choice between art and improved living conditions for the city’s residents. Lane believes Dublin can have both.
The decision not to interview Lane sidesteps docudrama’s worst failing: dialogue that doesn’t ring through. There’s an experimental quality to the scripted scenes that could have failed to gel with the rest of the film, yet, for the most part, they work within the complex structure of this piece.
Citizen Lane is a fascinating use of the docudrama format to tell the story of a complex life and its legacy. It is a complex piece that showcases what’s best about this genre while adding to our understanding of Ireland in the early 20th century and the important cultural figures of this period