O’Connor’s latest feature, King of the Travellers, has just been released on DVD in Britain and continues to serve his agenda of producing Irish films that spotlight themes that might discomfort audiences.
The director is among the rising current of Irish filmmakers that favours new styles in film narrative.
King of the Travellers is his third feature and tells the story of the Moorhouse family, a Travelling clan entrenched in a bloody feud with rival brood the Powers.
The Moorhouses are also in constant dispute with the law, the council and the hardened henchmen of an exasperated landowner determined to defend his estate against trespass.
Yet if the Moorhouse clan have pressing difficulties from outside their impoverished, mud-caked caravan camp, their internecine disputes are also deepening and their suppressed traumas surfacing.
Clan leader Francis (Michael Collins), a former bare-knuckle scrapper who has mellowed with age, assures local Garda “we just want to live in peace”, but finds his attempts at restraint ineffective upon the angry young bucks among his own people.
His nephew John Paul Moorhouse is having nightmares about his dead father Martin (David Murray), who died in an unexplained shooting years before, of which the Powers are suspected and for which John Paul is seeking vengeance.
Then there’s the fiery figure of Mickey ‘The Bags’ Moorhouse (a bravura turn from Love/Hate actor Peter Coonan), who was brought into the clan during childhood by the late Martin, then clan head, and who feels a profound need to prove himself worthy of being considered “blood”. Never without his characteristic leather trilby, nothing stirs Mickey’s ire more than to hear the taunt: “You’re not a real Traveller.”
As if this brutal imbroglio wasn’t complex enough, John Paul starts to rekindle a romance with childhood sweetheart Winnie Power (Carla McGlynn), who happens to be the daughter of the man whom he reckons killed his father.
While the movie couldn’t be considered an everyday tale of Travelling folk, the narrative style is a curious, though not unengaging, mixture of social commentary and flamboyant set pieces.
There are snapshots of simple realism indicating the common prejudice shown to Travellers (“It’s regular only,” the pub landlord says) and these are blended with highly designed sequences, as when a bar-room brawl is conveyed with almost balletic precision.
There’s energy, pace and power to King of the Travellers but this is barely leavened by anything quieter or reflective. At times this is undeniably vivifying, as in the opening montage of an exhilarating sulkycart race along Dublin’s motorways, which recalled to me Fernando Meirelles’ City of God (2002).But sometimes the constant expression of anger and violence makes the plot move from one burst of furious action to the next, giving the narrative an exhausting nature.
O’Connor has tried to fuse idealism with realism, but dramatising day-to-day experience is among the trickiest effects for film-makers to achieve convincingly. There are hints of Ken Loach and Shane Meadows in O’Connor’s gritty portrayals but even Loach and Meadows’ strongest advocates admit that experiment and improvisation sometimes misfires.
King of the Travellers uses real Travelling people for small parts, which is a nod towards authenticity, but people never look less authentic than when playing a heightened version of themselves for the camera (see any wedding video). The overall effect makes the film appear frenetic and fragmented.
Still, this might be what O’Connor is aiming at or something close to it, at least. O’Connor is on record as insisting modern-day Irish film should move away from polished pieces and towards more rough-hewn works. “We have too long focussed on perfecting the script,” O’Connor says, stating that “film can work in a different way to rigidly plotted stories.”
He indicates low-budget features like Ivan Kavanagh’s Tin Can Man (2007) and Terry McMahon’s Charlie Casanova (2011) as examples of a ‘New Wave’ in Irish cinema.
Indeed, last year O’Connor pronounced his manifesto in Film Ireland magazine, observing an emerging movement that concentrates less on mainstream entertainment and more on “personal film-making”. This suggests that broad, crowd-pleasing appeal should be eschewed in favour of honest, individual emotional expression.
O’Connor avows that filmmakers should be both the writers and directors of their creations, seeing the process through from the opening line of the script to the end credits.
He cites Irish directors who in recent years have made movies that foreground visual imagination over more common verbal emphasis. Lance Daly’s Kisses (2008) and Ken Wardrop’s His and Hers (2009) are just two examples that reveal Irish storytellers can use images as well as words to express their aesthetic sensibilities. O’Connor applauds this evolution and insists that for Irish cinema to find its own distinctive vision, it must cease “sucking on Hollywood’s infant formula”.
These are bold, imaginative demands and they’re rightly welcomed by anyone concerned with development and innovation in Irish film. O’Connor says that the social and economic disruption of recent times puts Irish culture in need of new thinking and, in this sense, his manifesto evokes post-war Italian neo-realism and French nouvelle vague, two film movements that arose from troubled times in their own countries.
Yet while O’Connor is acknowledged for his previous features Stalker (2012) and Between the Canals (2011), which is now on DVD, King of the Travellers is a hit-and miss affair, sometimes impressing, sometimes disappointing.
O’Connor has said that art should “disrupt familiarity” but this film, perhaps unexpectedly, strikes many familiar notes. Gabriel Byrne in Into the West (1992), Richard Harris in Trojan Eddie (1996) and Brad Pitt in Snatch (2000) all travelled the Travellers trail, while Perry Ogden’s Pavee Lackeen (2005) captures that singular world most persuasively.
Nevertheless, when King of the Travellers is good, it’s very good. It’s effectively lit, has a stirring soundtrack and makes strong use of archive footage, and has an unflinching dramatic climax.
Though flawed, this film is a brave and worthy effort.
King of the Travellers is out now on DVD.
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