Arracht is an Irish-language production set during the Great Famine and it is perhaps the first film since Das Boot that caused me to hate the English. Yet Tom Sullivan’s film is not politically charged Anglophobia. Rather, it is a moody character drama that believes all people are capable of evil and violence.
Our focaliser is Coleman Sharkey (Donall O Healai), an Irish fisherman who lives with his wife and infant son in a stone cottage on the Connemara coast. Life is hard for the Sharkey family, yet their bond brings much warmth to their harsh, rural existence. However, the encroaching potato blight makes their position untenable, so the fair-minded Coleman arranges a meeting to discuss the rates with his English landlord, played with simmering haughtiness by Michael McElhatton.
Tense and ambiguous, their meeting at the landlord’s dimly lit estate is the best scene in the film. Much of the scene’s power is in the nuanced characterisation of the landlord, who values Irish culture but is also obstinate and uncaring, believing his tenants to be somehow idle or unenterprising. You can see Coleman’s subtle frustration as his diplomacy stalls, but he’s too measured to lash out. This cannot be said of Patsy (Dara Devaney), an army veteran with an itching capacity for violence.
This moment is not only well played by the performers but also skillfully staged by director Tom Sullivan, who ratchets the anxiety and makes good use of authentic set design and period lighting. Sullivan makes even better use of the Connemara landscape, which Coleman traverses for much of Arracht’s 90-minute narrative, his mind and body strained to their limits by the barren elements and the boorish authorities that torment him.
To get a better idea of what Arrachtis all about, I spoke with its writer and director Tom Sullivan, who managed to fit me into his hectic lunch break. As he joined the Zoom call behind the wheel of his parked car, he told me was keeping quiet as his young child was sleeping in the back. Despite that, he had plenty to say about his career.
JH: I enjoyed Arracht. It’s a very arresting film to watch and tense, as well. I know it wasn’t your intention to vilify the Brits and I don’t think you did, but I still think it’s the first film since Das Boot in which I hated the English. But again, it’s certainly not a Mel Gibson treatment of history is it?
TS: [Laughs] No, no. My lack of vilification really doesn’t come from any moral standpoint, it’s more about the character and I always prefer grey area to what I’ve called the “moustache-twirling bad guy”.
The history is the history. British foreign policy was a cause of mass death and suffering, and that’s there in the film. But I’m not banging a drum about it – it’s just what it is.
And, you know, the Irish were also responsible to for an awful lot of suffering. So it’s all about people and grey areas, you know, and I think that’s what’s interesting – everybody has the potential to be monsters. It’s given your circumstance. So that’s why I don’t vilify the Brits, because, you know, there are people you know, and there’s bad and good and there’s good people do bad things, and, you know, vice versa. So, that’s where I was coming from.
JH: You seem to have an interest in history. Where does that come from? And also, do you have a family connection to the Great Famine? Have you tracked your family history in that way?
TS: No, I haven’t. And I didn’t have a massive interest in history to be honest with you. The famine thing started with the character of Coleman. I wanted to tell a story about a fisherman from this area and it could have been set in the future or the past, but what I found was the famine began to just walk, into the film and into the script.
JH: Arracht is a harshly beautiful film. What was your location scouting process?
TS: Yeah, so we went all over the west of Ireland. I have a very close connection with that particular part of Ireland because my partner of 20 years is from there and our two kids have been raised in the Irish language.
Ireland goes from being very pretty to being quite beautiful in a harsh way. And we were looking for the harsh beauty as opposed to pretty, and there’s nowhere that does harsh beauty more than Connemara, with the rocks and how they break through the surface almost like the bones of the landscape. It was tough logistically because it was remote, but we just couldn’t find it anywhere else, so we chose Connemara and made it work.
JH: Yeah, you certainly did. I’m always interested to hear filmmakers’ influences and tastes. What has influenced you over the years as a filmmaker?
TS: It’s American filmmakers from the ‘70s and ‘80s. You known, Friedkin and The French Connection, Spielberg, lot of Scorsese… Michael Cimino, Deer Hunter… going all the way up to Paul Thomas Anderson, who’s a big influence on me. And in reference to Arracht, There Will Be Blood and The Road, the adaptation from the Cormac McCarthy novel, the atmosphere in that was hugely influential. Arrival, you know, what’s the director’s name?
JH: Denis Villeneuve.
TS: Yes, yes. So him, the stuff he’s doing now. All that stuff.
JH: Yeah, I can see those influences. Before you go, have you got anything in the pipeline, any more historical stuff?
TS:I’m writing a film called Paradise at the moment. The dream will be to shoot late next year. It’s set about 50 years on from the famine and it follows a refugee who escaped the famine as a child, ended up in Glasgow where he joined a monastery, became a monk and then set up soup kitchens for the starving Catholic children of Glasgow. Eventually he set up Celtic football club.
I’m also writing a comedy set in Dublin in the 1980s called Sonny, which is about an ex-heroin addict who gets out of prison and tries to redeem his wrongdoings with disastrous, hilarious results.
JH: Cool! well I’ll let you get on with those projects then. Thank you for speaking with us, Tom
TS: Okay, you’re welcome. It’s a pleasure.