Keswick Film Club - Reviews - Glassland

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Reviews - Glassland


Reviewed By John Porter

Gerard Barrett's Glassland (2014) takes us to the outskirts of Dublin where John (Jack Reynor) drives a battered taxi and lives with his mother, Jean (Toni Collette) who is in the process of drinking herself to death. The movie opens with John's blank voice stating that it has been a, "long night. Had some difficult clients". It is a speech which is repeated throughout the film, each time cast in new light by the spiralling situation, and becoming more poignant and desperate each time. The tight cast of characters is vivid, and each is wholly believable in their population of a small, bleak world where the possibility of freedom is at once so near yet so far.

John is endearing in his tirelessness, never giving us any doubt that he is a good man, and all the while quietly breaking under the strain of seeing his mam waste away. He wipes up her vomit, empties the remains of yesterday's bottles down the sink before she wakes, and videos her rages on his mobile phone. His caring for her is presented as well practiced, and during one sequence which details him taking Jean's limp body to hospital, its systematic nature is subtly emphasised. He opens the first door to leave the house, then the one on the porch, and then the car door, all followed in one continuous, static take by the same sequence in reverse. It is a routine that is killing both of them, and an elongated shot boldly forces us to digest the repetition during a scene of great haste.

Aside from such directorial flair, it is also during these instances that Reynor's performance excels. The young actor holds the moment with a quiet naturalism that is both fascinating and perfectly balanced in its portrayal of captivity and hope. Collette's portrayal of Jean however, is searing. Although we often see her through the eyes of John's love, whether it be from behind his net curtains or from the windscreen of his cab as he watches, Jean never merely functions as an extension of his outlook. Like all of the characters that populate John's world, she is a fully rounded figure in a rich picture of life. Jean's powerful monologue stating the trials of growing an addiction and disdain for her other son Kit (Harry Nagle) who has Down syndrome, ensures that issues such as alcoholism and disability, too often simplified into easily digestible emotional packets, remain real and non-judged facets of humanity.
Although the intimate nature of Glassland stems in no small part from the performances of Reynor and Collette, it is Barrett's visual language that gives this intimacy a claustrophobic, intense edge. The film is presented in a tapestry of medium close-ups, dispensing with establishing shots almost entirely. The atmosphere of the cinematography therefore is enclosed, concentrating on heads and shoulders with doorways and brickwork masking off parts of the frame. Decor is boiled down to its chipped paintwork and bare walls, but never dwelt upon; the focus of the story is human, poverty is merely the circumstance. This has the effect of tightening the narrative around the characters, especially John. He is constantly looking off-screen, searching, holding his poise always a little longer than expected and teasing us as to what we cannot see.

This hint of being on the fringes of 'something else' is a theme developed throughout the movie, and is shown not only as a possibility of redemption but also as the proximity of crime. In the shadowy world of John's 'extra' work at the taxi rank he ferries prostitutes around the drab streets, and in one sequence picks up a bundle of money which is delivered to his cab by a hooded boy on horseback. As the taxi pulls away, the camera positioned behind its dirty window follows the horse and rider as they trot off back into the estate, another dark courier existing on the margins. With its steady and consistent mastery of style, along with outstanding performances, Barrett sculpts Glassland into a tersely focused yet complex movie which manages to address a wealth of difficult themes with dignity and intelligence.

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