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Dark Lies the Island marks a first-time pairing of director Ian Fitzgibbon (Death of a Superhero, Moone Boy) and writer Kevin Barry (City of Bohane, Beatlebone) resulting in a pitch-black and utterly unique 90 minutes. The film’s focus revolves around the Mannion family in small town Ireland, consisting of Daddy, Doggy, and Martin and follows a long-standing family feud between the three psychologically fragile and damaged characters. Boasting an impressive Irish cast including familiar faces such as Pat Shortt, Charlie Murphy, Tommy Tiernan, Peter Coonan, Moe Dunford and new comer Jana Mohieden, the story of jealously, resentment and mental illness unfolds over the space of a week and is centred around the town and lake of Dromord.
Set against the backdrop of contemporary rural Ireland, the setting has become a familiar one to Irish viewers in recent times, as has the dark-comedy. However, the theme and personalities contained within this story bring something entirely fresh and unique to the screen. Many of these characters are taken from Barry’s two short story collections, Dark Lies the Island and his debut There are Little Kingdoms, both of which received critical acclaim on release. For anyone familiar with Barry’s work, the Limerick native is quite at home in the utterly bizarre. This is a quality evident in his first foray into cinema.
The writer also has a passion for dialogue and location, both of which are important features throughout. Barry’s screenplay captures the colloquial tongue, and coming at it from a novelist’s point of view, does not fall into the trap of relying on over used and generic lines. Instead the dialogue is witty and sharp, helping to capture the essence of the area.
Location is also used to interesting effect. From the very start of the film, the lake the title alludes to is used almost like an extra character, a technique Barry regularly applies in his writing. The lake causes psychological strain on the population of Dromord and is described as having “turned half the place crooked in the head”. Yet while the issue of mental health is prevalent throughout, the tone of the film remains darkly quirky rather than down beat.
Stylistically, the film is (for the most part) visually pleasing and often striking. Shot on location in both Roscommon and Wicklow, the natural landscape is captured beautifully. There’s repeated shots looking out onto the lake, often shrouded in mist. These are then contrasted with low lit interiors, often relying on artificial lighting such as neon signs or a lava lamp. Played together, it results in a grotesque, almost dystopian feel to an otherwise familiar landscape. The soundtrack, which is quite minimalistic in nature, is also extremely effective in emphasising the peculiarity of the location and characters, building on the sense of utter strangeness throughout. The only area where the film feels slightly low budget is a particular fight scene near the films close, in which despite best efforts in the edit, appears choppy and fragmented.
That being said, the combination of such an experienced director and cast, combined with the natural talent and ability of Barry has come together here to create something refreshingly exciting that takes a look at Irish society under both a contemporary and gothic lens. Barry has written of an Ireland which is both familiar yet completely alien and strong performances all around have helped to transform this from page to screen. Jana Mohieden shines as a promising newcomer to watch, while both Tiernan and Shortt do considerably well in roles far more serious than what viewers are accustomed to.
Barry and Fitzgibbon have created a dark, twisted and wickedly funny portrayal of small-town Ireland, one which promotes promise for Irish cinema going forward.