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HOME Press Screenings: ‘Calm With Horses’ and ‘Radioactive’

Written by Charlie O’Brien

Calm With Horses is the first feature from Nick Rowland and in a hundred minutes it constructs an enthralling, authentic narrative. It is a fine debut. On the surface it is an Irish crime drama, but the result is greater than the sum of its parts. The performances, score and production design help to elevate Calm With Horses into a visceral and poetic cinematic experience.

Based on the short story by Colin Barrett it follows ex-boxer Douglas ‘Arm’ Armstrong (Cosmo Jarvis) as his loyalties are torn between two families in rural Ireland. Arm has become the enforcer for local organised crime family, the Devers, and the right-hand man of hothead nephew Dympna (Barry Keoghan) in their drug-dealing operations. Meanwhile Arm struggles to connect with his increasingly estranged ex-girlfriend Ursula Dory (Niamh Algar) and their young autistic son Jack (Kiljan Tyr Moroney). In an opening voiceover Arm explains how some men deal with their issues through violence and this emotional inertia is one of the film’s central themes. Arm is a man of few words and described by others as the ‘silent man’; he is treated like a subservient animal by Dympna who clicks his tongue at him as if beckoning a horse. Arm’s inability to communicate is mirrored in his son Jack who uses only grunts and groans. The film’s title may seem a bit inaccessible but it cleverly ties these issues together.

Niamh Algar (The Virtues) is brilliant as the determined single mother trying to do what’s best for her son. Similarly, Barry Keoghan (Dunkirk, The Killing of a Sacred Deer) delivers another great performance, his unique, expressive face a magnifying screen presence. Watch out for Cosmo Jarvis (Lady Macbeth) in the coming years. He is in mesmerising form here, displaying that uncanny ability to say so much without dialogue. The film gradually develops into a thriller and the pacing neatly builds a sense of dread, though this tension could have been served better by exploring Douglas’ past as a boxer more fully. Any gangster film tropes are only cursory and the violence doesn’t feel exploitative. If it ever threatens to fall into Scorsese-Ritchie pastiche it avoids doing so through the sensitivity of the central performance and a beautiful, understated score. Composer and musician Blanck Mass’ original soundscape saturates the film with a magical, melancholic quality.

In staying true to the source material, Rowland successfully reveals the family dimension of crime; it is a tender examination of repressed masculinity and small-town entrapment. It will be released in cinemas nationwide on March 13th.

Unfortunately, Radioactive was not as enjoyable. It is a messy re-telling of a large portion of Marie Curie’s life, depicting both her professional work and personal relationships. The film focuses on her romantic and scientific partnership with Pierre Curie (Sam Riley) as together they make ground-breaking discoveries in the field of radioactivity. There are several breaks in the narrative as we are time-travelled through some of the major historical events of the 20th century, witnessing the repercussions of their research. By intertwining episodes from Chernobyl and Hiroshima with the Curie story, the film is posing the question of accountability and the ethics of science. It is an interesting idea albeit clumsily executed.

It is a rich topic however at 1 hour 50 minutes it drags. Filmmaking is about world-building yet I did not lose myself in the time or place of this story. The inexplicable flash forwards are haphazard and not fully drawn. The mish-mash structure was disorientating and frustrating, it had me sighing and shuffling in my seat. At one point the film half-heartedly attempts to shoehorn in a message about immigration. Tonally it is all over the place. It felt like there were too many competing threads and the film could not make up its mind which to follow. This has been produced by Working Title, the period drama/biopic specialists behind The Theory of Everything and Darkest Hour, and Radioactive is very much in that mould. It is very safe. Surely a film about one of the greatest scientists in history, who happens to be a woman, should be underwritten by a feminist spirit? If this film was making a feminist comment then it passed me by. Marie is portrayed as utterly dependent on Pierre; ‘Please make my husband appear’/ ‘I can’t do anything without him.’

The dialogue is clunky and on-the-nose to say the least – ‘You’re the greatest woman I’ve ever met’ and ‘You’re Marie Curie, it’s time to make this war your war’, to name a couple. The script seems to be littered with anachronisms which took me out of the moment. The milieu was not believable. Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl) does her best with the material but the writing is too poor at times. The physicality of her performance was impressive and helped to demonstrate the ageing process and deteriorating health of Curie. Of course, it is not without merit and Simon Russell Beale (The Death of Stalin) provides some light relief. I’m sure there is a more nuanced biopic to be made about Curie. Overall, though, Radioactive is wiggy and baggy. This is a shame because Marjane Satrapi is an amazing artist and I highly recommend Persepolis, from 2007. Perhaps her style does not lend itself to this kind of film. It will be released in cinemas nationwide on March 20th.

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