God’s Creatures – Review

God's CreaturesThere is an old stereotype about Irish mammies and their sons. Daughters have to jump through hoops for attention, but the boys can do no wrong. Their halo rarely needs polishing and their dinner plates can never be full enough. What would it take to wipe the scales from a mother’s eyes, to see her son as he truly is?

That’s the question at the heart of co-directors Saela Davis and Anna Rose Holmer’s God’s Creatures. Set in an unnamed Irish shore town, the fortunes of those involved in the fishing trade ebb and flow with the tide. That alone should cause enough strain. The stench of death, from those men who never return ashore to the blood cascading over the fish factory floor, pervades everything. Those who work on the boats are never taught to swim, which results in this film opening with a body being washed up on the coastline and the typical course of Gaelic grieving.

It is in the midst of this funereal atmosphere that Brian (Paul Mescal) makes a shock return home. His mother, Aileen (Emily Watson) cannot believe it. Her boy, her fatted calf who had gone off to seek his fortune in Australia, has now graced this small village with his charm and chat.

The rhythm of the fish factory, where Aileen works, punctuates this hearty drama, which rises and falls like the chorus of an Irish folk song. The thuds, the whines, the clatters. It never goes away. The oyster trestles stick up above the sea like a ribcage full to bursting. A crow squawks against frozen windows. The icy grey skies threaten with a rumble of thunder. Davis and Holmer set the scene very quickly of a harsh existence, carved out by whatever means necessary.

More than that, they offer up a bleak commentary on the female experience. You might luck out and have a job in the factory and a husband who doesn’t beat you with his sea-bruised fists. But that’s as good as the women of this film can hope for. This is particularly apparent in Aisling Franciosi’s character, Sarah. Everyone casts their eyes downward as clear evidence emerges that she is being abused by her partner. When she takes her sexual assault to the Garda, she finds herself refused service at the local pub whilst those propping up the bar make rape jokes. It’s extremely uncomfortable viewing.

God's CreaturesAnd right at the centre of these assault claims is Brian, the twinkle-eyed prodigal son. Aileen is only too happy to provide him with an alibi for the night in question. As far as she is concerned, she knows what her son is and he’s not a rapist. But, as she battles with her conscience, we see the doubts creep in. Why did he return from Australia so suddenly? And why didn’t he stay in touch whilst he was there? Why was he so confident that she would confirm his alibi for the night in question?

Both Mescal and Watson are on top form, here. Mescal is all Irish craic and loving mummy’s boy, out to prove that he can run the family oyster business. There are moments in his performance where you’ll find yourself scanning his face for the truth – was that a twitch of the mouth or a flicker of the eye? Watson is, initially stoic and sensible. As a woman of the town, she knows her lot in life could be much worse. But as she opens her eyes to the world around her – not least, her son’s behaviour – you can see the faith she has had in her routine, her existence, crumble. It is these performances, coupled with the astounding Aisling Franciosi, that elevate this film from another run-of-the-mill drama to a piece of work that will hold your attention to the very end.

It’s also interesting to note that, judging by the tech, the décor and the costumes, you cannot tell if this film is set in 1983 or yesterday. It lends this cyclical notion to these patterns of behaviour; these centuries of women who have struggled on the island. Time, itself, is like a character, here. Or perhaps that should be a ghost.

God’s Creatures is a fantastic slow burn drama that benefits from a fantastic cast and a strong sense of rhythm. It is these beats, that never lose time, that are a stark reminder of generations of trauma, misogyny and the possibility that you could lose everything with one high tide.

The UK premiere of God’s Creatures hits the Glasgow Film Festival 2023. Get your tickets here.

Mary Munoz
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