That They May Face the Rising Sun – Review

That They May Face The Rising SunEvery so often, you come across a film in which nothing really happens, yet it somehow manages to strike at the core of you. Pat Collins’ adaptation of the John McGahern novel, That They May Face The Rising Sun, falls into this particular category. Offering up insight into life in a rural Irish village in the 1980s, Collins carefully weaves an intimate story of community and tradition.

Joe (Barry Ward) and Kate (Anna Bederke) have swapped the hustle-and-bustle of London for a small farmhouse in Ireland. They are not city dwellers, here to laugh at the locals or impose their own way of doing things. Instead, for Joe, this is a return home to the place he was raised and the chance to re-connect with the landscape which shaped him. The film tracks their experiences through the different seasons – from hay gathering and honey making to the leaves crisping up in a vibrant display of autumn – whilst offering a little social commentary as to the lives of small rural communities such as this.

The star of the show, without doubt, is the verdant landscape that the camera so lovingly gazes upon. This is not the 1980s as is so often caught on camera – all crimped hair, blue eyeshadow and shoulder pads – this is an entirely different offering. The palette of lush greens, earthy browns, crisp blues and wheaty beiges is so compelling you would swear you could smell it. There are several moments where Collins revels in stillness and silence, punctuated by nothing more than the soundscape of the countryside. Nothing is rushed in this film, not even the delivery of a line. “Isn’t that the beauty of it?” remarks Joe, “Just living the day to day. Isn’t that why we left London?”

That They May Face The Rising Sun not only celebrates its setting but of the sense of community such a landscape brings. There’s a sharing of skills, a passing of knowledge prevalent with the chores that each new season brings. There are loving close ups of practical skills – hands learning how to work wood; hay being wrestled into place – as well as genuine acts of kindness, such as Joe helping Bill board a bus into town.

From the offset, we see an assortment of elderly neighbours pop into Joe and Kate’s house for a visit. Usually over a cuppa or a meal, they share the village gossip. Their notion of London is that of an entirely foreign place, made up of a different pace, different rules and manners. Under layers of itchy looking wool, the likes of Johnny (Sean McGinley), Jamesie (Phillip Dolan) and Bill (Brendan Conroy) are all still trying to eke out a small living. There is a notion of poverty that is never spoken about but is evident in the fact that these men still need to work; that their nightshirts are grey and holey with age; that their homes are dark and cold. “The country’s full of battered folk like Bill,” Joe sighs, acknowledging his own privilege.

For a film that is so affable and understated – even the piano score barely rises above lullaby-like twinkling – it certainly packs emotional heft. Two scenes, a wedding and a death within short That They May Face The Rising Sunsuccession of each other, strike at the heart of what it means to belong somewhere. The tenderness and community that is on display, in both instances, are incredibly touching. One is a celebration, layered with sound and joy, the other is silence that takes on a layer of weight that seems palpable. But for both major events, the neighbours throw their arms around each other in a demonstration of pure togetherness that really does warrant a tear or two.

That They May Face The Rising Sun feels like we are being permitted a glimpse into the ordinary, everyday lives of a small rural village. It’s not intrusive, instead it revels in an unhurried pace that makes you feel part of the neighbourhood. The gentle pacing may not be for everyone – how rare that a film gives you time to stop and soak up the landscape – but the message surrounding community spirit is surely a universal one.

Winner of Best Film at the Irish Film & Television Awards, That They May Face the Rising Sun is screening in UK cinemas as of 26 April.

Mary Munoz
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