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In the 21st century, Irish cinema has become a lot more adventurous. There’s been the scabrous comedies of the McDonagh brothers; the quiet atmospheric character studies of Lenny Abrahamson and Rebecca Daly; gritty portraits of life on the margins from Frank Berry and Mark O’Connor; and a wave of interesting arthouse/genre hybrids like Black 47, Kissing Candice and The Dig. With these movies fresh in the memory, it’s frustrating to see in new Irish dramedy The Last Right a potentially very moving story about the complexities of familial and human connection be diluted into a flimsy farce.
Written and directed by first time feature filmmaker Aoife Crehan, the film stars Michael Huisman (The Invitation, The Haunting of Hill House), the Dutch actor’s inherent warmth just about making up for the fact he’s a strange choice to play someone called Daniel Murphy. The movie begins with him on a plane, returning to his home of Clonakilty in Cork from NYC in the wake of his mother’s death. Once he lands, he’ll be faced with the difficult challenge of getting his now parentless autistic brother Louis (Samuel Bottomley) – someone who hates changes to his routine – to come live with him in New York.
Before that though, on the plane Daniel winds up having a chat with elderly man Padraig (Jim Norton). The latter tells him he is similarly returning home because of a familial bereavement. His brother – who Padraig regrets not having talked to for years because of a petty fight – has died and is being buried in Rathlin Island, Northern Ireland.
Lonely and without any family left, Padraig puts Daniel down as his next of kin. When the old man dies, however, the burden falls on Daniel to bring his body from Cork to Antrim to be buried with his sibling. Thinking it’ll be a chance to bond with Louis, the pair make the drive, joined by Mary (Niamh Algar) – a young woman who has her own business to do along the way.
The Last Right is well-made on a technical level. It boasts some charming supporting performances – most notably rising star Algar, who endears as a feisty young woman with the tendency to act first and think later. Plus, when the drama stays focused on Daniel, Louis and Mary piled into a car together shooting prickly comedic dialogue at one another, its portrait of familial dysfunction – there’s more to the Murphy clan than there appears at first – is gripping.
However, the moment Colm Meaney shows up as an aggro Garda convinced Daniel is breaking the law by bringing Padraig’s body to be buried next to his brother is where the movie loses faith in its own sweet fable, one inspired by various true-life events. From here, it settles for broad gags, a ticking clock narrative which makes no sense (for some reason the trio and the Rathlin parish priest played in an extended cameo by Brian Cox are very adamant Padraig has to be buried at the same time as his brother, as opposed to a day later) and totally unrealistic situations and character choices. In terms of the latter, Meaney says he will arrest Daniel and co if they continue their quest. But instead of following the admittedly bone-headed orders from police, our lead character drives on to Rathlin Island, risking his autistic brother getting arrested.
Farces can be fun. But in The Last Right, these elements feel at odds with the intimate sweet story at the heart of Crehan’s script – that a stranger would go so far for someone they barely knew, using the experience and story of the deceased to examine his own priorities in life and family relations. While the power of this still somewhat resonates, The Last Right would be a stronger film without all the clichés.