Young Irish writer/director Gerard Barrett follows up his 2013 debut Pilgrim Hill with the equally as gritty Glassland, a film which makes the absolute most of its two excellent leads to present a powerful study of the devastating personal battles being fought behind myriad ordinary doors. Here, Barrett addresses the same themes of isolation, despair and parental relationships as in his first film, but shifts his focus from the empty expanses of rural Ireland to the claustrophobic confines of the nondescript working class back streets of Dublin.
It’s here that 20-something taxi driver John (Jack Raynor) lives and works; by night ferrying the city’s inhabitants (and acting as a low-level transporter for the local criminals) and by day waging – and losing – a desperate battle against his mother Jean’s (Toni Collette) alcoholism. After it’s made clear that Jeans drinking will kill her – and soon – John realises he must force her to accept help; a decision that comes at enormous financial and personal cost.
This brand of gruelling kitchen sink drama is apt to sink into melodrama, but Barrett manages to avoid such emotional quagmire by focusing onto just on the relentless hardships routinely faced by the disadvantaged, but by cracking open the familial fractures at the heart of John’s struggles. The dynamic between John and Jean drives this story; they are at once confidantes and adversaries, friends and bitter enemies. There’s is effectively a role reversal, with John being his mother’s sole protector and, ultimately, her redeemer, and their intimate struggle for power effectively shines a light on some dark truths of parenthood.
Indeed, Jean’s thoughts on motherhood are made explicitly clear in the film’s extraordinary centrepiece, a drunken soliloquy in which he explains her animosity towards John’s disabled, exiled younger brother and her resentment towards the life-changing reality of having children. It’s a shockingly honest diatribe, which strikes at the heart not only of this particular tragedy, but also the traditional sanctity of motherhood. It’s a bold flag for any filmmaker to nail to the mast, and beautifully written and performed by Barrett and Collette respectively; an extraordinarily brave cinematic moment, handled in such a way that it doesn’t overwhelm the rest of the narrative.
Which is important because this is, ultimately, John’s story, and Raynor is excellent playing a conscientious, and responsible young man of a type seen all too rarely in modern films, his loyalty unwavering even in the face of lost opportunity and a dismal future. Raynor inhabits this man with subtlety, conveying his hidden pain without overegging the drama. It’s a fitting central performance for a film that, despite a few heavy-handed lapses – an over reliance on tight framing to indicate Johns trappings, a too-obvious use of Tainted Love in a key scene – is a well-observed, taut and moving slice of modern realism.
UK Release: April 17, 2015
An edited version of this review was originally published at The List