Irish language drama Arracht a powerful, understated piece of film-making

Dara Devaney and Dónall Ó Héalaí in Arracht
Dara Devaney and Dónall Ó Héalaí in Arracht Dara Devaney and Dónall Ó Héalaí in Arracht

ARRACHT (15, 89mins) Drama, thriller. Starring: Dónall Ó Héalaí, Saise Ní Chuinn, Dara Devaney, Conal Ó Céidigh, Seán T Ó Meallaigh, Siobhán O'Kelly, Elaine O'Dwyer, Michael McElhatton, Peter Coonan

Director: Tomás Ó Súilleabháin

A COUPLE of years ago, Lance Daly's excellent Black 47 grappled with the stark brutality and suffering of the Great Famine in the form of a gripping as Gaeilge Western set in its apocalyptic aftermath: now, Tomás Ó Súilleabháin's Irish-language drama Arracht is a smaller scale but no less compelling tale of one man's world torn apart by Britain's calamitous colonial cruelty.

The 'monster' of the title could refer to characters like mysterious ex-British Navy sailor Patsy Kelly (Dara Devaney), an Irishman who returns home with a glowering hatred of his former paymasters – Englishmen not unlike Michael McElhatton's Lieutenant landlord, a 'let them eat cake' type who insists on raising rents even as his rural tenants teeter on the brink of poverty-stricken starvation while talking glibly of "perfectly acceptable" mortality levels.

That 'monster' could also be the merciless blight itself, its arrival announced by the wafting stench of rotten tubers, its decimating, famine-inducing effects synced to the putrid smell of human decay.

It could even reference by the torturous, trauma-induced mental demons swirling within the hollow-cheeked head of Connemara fisherman, poteen peddler and amateur herbalist Colmán Sharkey (Dónall Ó Héalaí) as he negotiates its horrific fall-out.

Colmán is a proud but placid family man verging on sainthood when we first meet him in 1845, constantly doting on his wife and mop-topped young son. At this stage, the potato blight is just beginning to spread across Ireland but still mostly the stuff of unsettling rumour, a la the early days of Covid.

However, the fisherman anticipates the blight's potentially devastating effect on his community and resolves to reason with their landlord in the local 'big house': surely, an educated man of such high standing will see sense, especially when it's served up alongside a couple of complimentary bottles of his favourite Irish moonshine?

Sadly, the unexpected arrival of smouldering/sinister stranger Patsy Kelly, the nephew of the local priest whom Colmán is asked to take into his happy home, spells disaster for everyone he encounters. Everything changes for Colmán during the course of one fateful evening, a slow-building horror show of mounting tension and dread skillfully staged by Ó Súilleabháin, his film hinged on its before and after.

A quick time-jump of two years finds Colmán living in haunted, emaciated isolation. Presumed dead, his life is in ruins, his name immortalised in rebel songs. But is the legend which has grown up around him accurate?

Only two people know for sure: an orphaned waif called Kitty (Saise Ní Chuinn), who offers Colmán a lifeline back to humanity after he reluctantly takes her under his skeletal wing – actor Dónall Ó Héalaí went 'full Bale' for this role, very visibly losing four stone – and someone else with their own twisted interest in exposing the truth.

Hugely atmospheric and packed with excellent performances – particularly from leading man Ó Héalái, whose quiet intensity is perfect for portraying the anguished Colmán – Arracht is a powerful, understated piece of film-making which you'll still be thinking about long after the end credits roll.

Rating: 3/5

:: Arracht will screen at QFT Belfast, Odeon Belfast and selected Omniplex cinemas from today