When discussing Irish films it can be informative to look at the era in which the films are released and the state of the nation at that particular time. During the Celtic Tiger era for example there was a run of frothy films (When Brendan Met Trudy, About Adam, Goldfish Memory) that showed a Dublin alive with charming rich people, sipping espressos without a care in the world. These films seemed to say that we have finally made it - we have a highly desirable capital city to live in. We had fancy coffee, Michelin star restaurants, even sunshine. It was all there on the screen so it had to be true.
In reality it was not. I grew up in Coolock in the 1980s and 1990s and I can say with some certainty that the Celtic Tiger passed us by. There should have been more anger then from the disenfranchised but there was not. The working class stood idly by and watched successive governments have ‘giveaway’ budgets, cynical cash-ins to ensure another term. We got to press our faces against real estate windows and look at houses we could never afford to buy. It was Dublin in the rare old times only for the ruling class and we had the films to match. These were films for ‘them’.
So years later, in the midst of the worst economic conditions for at least a generation, where are the films to reflect our anger at the downturn? We have had very little in this regard. One Hundred Mornings (probably correctly) seemed to be saying that the collapse of society will happen in a very quiet way without the usual associated film hysterics. But Charlie Casanova is coming at us from the aggressive end of the spectrum. This is an angry film with an angry central character from a very angry writer and director. There is something admirable in an uncompromising film as a concept. But all the anger in the world is worthless if you don’t have a film to sell and the question is thus: does Charlie Casanova stand up on its own terms?
The answer to this is a resounding yes, but it is a film not without problems. Charlie Casanova tells the story of Charlie Barnham who after hitting a woman in a working class neighbourhood with his car, lets a deck of cards decide her fate. Emboldened by the way he has seemingly got away with it, Charlie bullies his wife and friends into letting the cards make decisions for them, with some strange and tragic circumstances. Charlie takes these kinds of risks with increasing dangers for all involved as his life starts to spiral out of control. In plot terms, that is about it. The story is punctuated with some extraordinary set pieces including two darkly funny scenes involving an improv comedy set and an interview in a Garda station. In between the gallows humour are lengthy diatribes about men not being men and the ruling classes taking back the streets from the despised working class.
The film works best in the first hour. The use of a fractured narrative serves it well here. There is some wonderful cinematography by Eoin Macken, capturing everything in wonderfully grubby and intense close ups. There is simply nowhere else to look as the intimate events unfold. There is a brutally sad but quietly tender scene in a bath that is captured beautifully by Macken. The hotel that they stay in is has a soulless empty feeling, echoing empty businesses around the country. The building of tension in the first hour is expertly done and it does implode after the comedy improv. It is here that the film goes off the rails. Pacing becomes an issue here as the film slows down and the seams start to show. Thankfully the film rebounds with a chilling last 10 minutes. There is a wonderful final shot that is held for quite a long time that destroys any notion of a traditional sense of closure.
Emmet Scanlon is terrific in the title role. He is in virtually every scene and carries the film all the way. There has been criticism of his rantings as some sort of cod philosophy but surely that is the point. Charlie is an educated fool, a half baked car salesman whose opinions should be dismissed as such. Scanlon gets into his character to show the heartless monster beneath the confident exterior. The supporting cast are good and do quite a bit with somewhat underwritten roles.
Charlie Casanova is not a film for everyone. It is a tough watch - in your face from the first moment. There is plenty of room for a confrontational film in our film history and is a refreshing departure from the standard. With the reported miniscule budget it should also be inspirational to the next generation of filmmakers, letting them know that personal films, can be made, advertised and released regardless of budget. This has not really happened before with much success. Even if you don’t like the film this is surely a good thing for our industry. This is a film whose message on class and politics will become more important in the years to come as Ireland continues to devour itself and the working classes bear the brunt stoically as ever. That is a pretty good legacy for an Irish film to have.