Between the Canals opens with a frenetic scene in which a Dublin lowlife rings the Gardaí to tell them to hurry as a baby has been shot in the head. This is a smack in the face moment reminiscent of the opening to Intermission. Arguably more impressive is the fact that it is used as bait just to get the Gardaí to the flats where he pushes a washing machine off the edge of a higher floor towards them. He then stands up and shouts ‘Happy Paddy’s Day’ and runs off. Music cuts in alongside an impressive title sequence where some beautiful and evocative photographs of Dublin are shown onscreen. This opening leaves the rest of the film with a lot to live up to and sadly it fails to do so.
The central idea of three working class friends rattling around Dublin on St. Patrick’s Day is one that surprisingly has not really been done before. The three are Liam (Dan Hyland), torn between his friends who bring trouble and his family and the potential of a real job, Dots (Peter Coonan) the classic headcase of the story who is trying to move up the criminal ladder and Scratcher (Stephen Jones) who is amiable enough to go along with either of them. They beat up a gangster at the beginning of the film and spend the rest of the film trying to get out of trouble.
Unfortunately, we have seen the story arcs of the three protagonists enough times in films to have a good idea of what is going to happen. Indeed you spend the whole film hoping that it will play against type but to no avail. There are times when the story is seriously signposted. One particular scene stands out in this regard. Dots starts messing with a group of younger lads on bikes and when one of them answers him back he grabs him and tells him that he sorted out his brother awhile back. This scene leaves only one impression, that of revenge at some point in the film.
There are some positive things to say such as the shooting of the film in some seriously unrecognisable (to many people) areas of the city. These areas, such as Sheriff Street, have been around for what seems like forever and have avoided the gentrification that came with the Celtic Tiger. There is also a refreshingly non-sentimental depiction of the St. Patrick’s Day celebrations with barely a shamrock in sight. The look of the film belies the fact that it had a micro budget and only 12 days shooting time. It looks gritty and realistic and sets up the feel of the story. If only the story matched this ambition. The only recognisable face in the film is the musician Damien Dempsey who plays a local gangster. Rather surprisingly he is quite good, giving off a real air of menace whenever he is onscreen.
The main flaw in the film is that it is difficult to care in any way about the characters. This problem means that you have precious little invested in them as the film heads towards its climax. The acting from the leads themselves is solid but unspectacular. The real problem here is the script. Director and writer Mark O’Connor has gone to great lengths to make the film as authentic as possible but you can’t help but wish the script had been developed more. The characters seem to constantly shout insults at each other. Of course you expect plenty of that banter but it never lets up and quickly becomes tiresome.
Overall Between the Canals is a film of frustrations. You want to like it more than you do. The characters are one dimensional and more crucially unsympathetic. This is a fatal flaw for a film of this kind which is a real pity after the interesting opening. One hopes that O’Connor can go on to better things as he has undoubted potential. But as for Between the Canals, it is a missed opportunity.