The Guard: An Examination of Ireland’s Cinematic Industry

John Michael McDonagh’s The Guard (2011) is an important contribution to Irish cinema; the plot transcends both Irish and American culture and the content attracts an Irish and American demographic. Irishman may view this film and learn many cultural differences about Americans, particularly from Don Cheadle’s Agent Everett, while Americans may learn several societal and cultural differences of the Irish folk, most notably Brendan Gleeson’s magnificently portrayed Officer Gerry Boyle. Unfortunately for Ireland’s film industry, its resources are limited compared to that of the United States. More, since the entire of country of Ireland’s population is approximately six times less than the population of state of California alone, Irish filmmakers are forced to not only work with much smaller budgets, but to gain access to outside markets and establish diverse audiences. Therefore, filmmakers such as McDonagh have a greater challenge in terms of marketing, funding, and gaining a diverse audience.

First, it is necessary to distinguish McDonagh’s style of filmmaking compared to current filmmaking trends in Ireland. According to McDonagh, his approach to making The Guard was to counter current trends in Irish filmmaking most notably by Ken Loach and Michael Leigh. “[The Guard was] a reaction against British and Irish movies that are all that kind of miserablist, Mike Leigh, Ken Loach type movies,” said McDonagh. “They get on my nerves after a while. It’s working class people shouting at each other, wearing really bad clothes, and cooking bacon,” said McDonagh (Indiewire). Loach, known for The Wind that Shakes the Barley and recently, Jimmy’s Hall, is known for his naturalistic, realist style, lack of comic relief, minimal score, and setting the camera at a fixed interval while allowing the actors to engage in naturalistic, improvised dialogue. Loach, being a political activist, incorporates socialist subject matter into his films; My Name is Joe (1998) addressed the problems of alcoholism, The Navigators (2001) addressed workers’ rights, and Jimmy’s Hall (2014) addressed the political tensions of the Catholic Church in Ireland shortly after the end of the Civil War. McDonagh, to contrast Loach’s monotonous seriousness, makes his films much more humorous with characters providing comedic relief. His films are also much more stylized, but where most filmmakers make this mistake, McDonagh does it without sacrificing substance. The Guard, for example, has tremendous performances and well-written screenplay accompanied with McDonagh’s aesthetic visual flair full of a bright color palette. In one scene, officer Boyle’s walls are painted green, while he is shown to be wearing matching green underwear, which McDonagh explains is intentionally done and meant to be comical (Indiewire).

Visual style is very important trademark of directors. Visual aesthetics are completely absent from a screenplay; thus, the entire visual look of the film is dependent on the director adapting it. No two directors would visually adapt the same screenplay into the film the same way; therefore, visual aesthetics, including color, camera angles, cinematography, editing, and use of filtering, if effective, allow directors to create the atmosphere and tone of the film. While the content of the screenplay itself creates the story, directors can use visual aesthetics to manipulate and sensationalize the atmosphere of the film to heighten the intended emotional response in its audience.

McDonagh, though, does not always make black comedies like The Guard. In 2014, he released the critically acclaimed Calvary, about a priest (also magnificently played by Gleeson) whose life is threated by a victim of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. Unlike the realist noir look of Loach’s films, however, McDonagh used bright color palette, with symmetrical and slow motion technique for his mise-en-scene. In Father James Lavelle’s death scene, he falls backwards, in slow motion, with bright red blood oozing out of his chest, accompanied behind a bright, impressionistic beach setting. Even though the subject matter in Calvary is similar to that of a Loach film, it differs very much visually; Loach’s social realist visual style mirrors the real life conditions of working class life. In Loach’s Bread and Roses (2000) for example, is a political film about a group of custodians fighting to unionize. Visually, Loach reflects the plight of the characters themselves, using as the setting a run down office building with a very bland, muted, and brownish color scheme, along with establishing shots of urban architecture and traffic, with intent to visually recreate working class conditions. Similarly, Leigh dealt with numerous social issues as well; Secrets and Lies (1996) reflects the reality of factory workers and his 2004 Vera Drake tackles the controversial topic of abortion featuring an abortionist title character supplemented with an urban, dark, wintry pall to the cinematography which effectively makes mid-20th century London appear ominous. McDonagh, on the contrary, unlike Loach and Leigh, does not visually try to reflect the subject matter of his films with social realism and muted colors, particularly Calvary, but instead opts to use avant-garde techniques and bright filters.

The Irish film industry has shown tremendous growth within the last decade thanks to films such as The Guard. McDonagh is one a few Irish filmmakers who have helped push Irish films out of obscurity and into the mainstream spotlight. The Guard, and another prominent Irish film released the same year, Albert Nobbs, which was filmed in Dublin, were both nominated for major Golden Globe awards, not surprisingly, The Guard was nominated in the Best Performance by an Actor category for Brendon Gleeson. Albert Nobbs went on to be nominated for a whopping six Academy Awards, and even though it did not win any, the numerous nominations show the growth, potential, and influence the Irish film industry has had throughout the recent decade. In response to the success of these two films, James Hickey, chief executive of the Irish Film Board, said, “This is great international recognition for Irish creative talent working in the film industry. We are delighted to see a wide range of nominations which showcase Ireland on the international stage, underlining Ireland’s reputation as a cultural hub. [Both films] create opportunities for Irish talent to work on these projects” (IrishFilmBoard). Albert Nobbs, while filmed in Ireland, consists of a diverse cast from many different ethnicities, including the American Glenn Close, the Australian Mia Wasikowska, the British Pauline Collins, with many Irish supporting cast members. After debuting at the Telluride Film Festival, the film had its initial wide release in Australia. The Guard, however, has much more Irish characteristics, which makes its international recognition that much more important for the Irish film industry. It’s not only filmed in Ireland, but the cast consists mainly of Irish actors (with the exception of Don Cheadle), along with its first wide release in Ireland after debuting at Sundance.

Films produced in Ireland are also funded much differently than American films. Hollywood films are often privatized, and the studio will invest a certain budget to cover the costs of the film. How an American film is funded can work two ways. In the first method, a studio will hire an unproven director for a project with a set budget and tell him or her to work within the allotted budget. This gives the director opportunity to prove his or herself and advance his/her career. In the second method, a proven director with experience in making successful films working on a project may request a certain amount from the studio, and the studio is much obliged to honor a proven director’s request. Studios may allow big-name American director like Steven Spielberg, for example, to work within whatever budget he feels he needs.  Irish films, on the other hand, are supported by public funding. James Hickey admits, “Funding from the Bord Scannaán na hÉireann (the Irish Film Board) is key for projects such as The Guard to be produced in Ireland” (IrishFilmBoard). Because many Irish filmmakers are tempted to bring their craft into large film industries, such as Hollywood, funding from the Irish Film Board was created as an incentive to keep filmmakers filming in Ireland. While the American film industry can successfully operate without the use of public funds, public funding is necessary in Ireland “to encourage, sustain, and promote work in Ireland that is made to be shown on the big screen” (IrishFilmBoard). Without this public funding, the Irish film industry would likely collapse and filmmakers would find incentives elsewhere. Domestically, according to Box Office Mojo, The Guard only grossed just over four million, but internationally it grossed fourteen million, which is over seventy percent of its total gross (BoxOfficeMojo). This is just another piece of evidence to attest to the dependency on international success that Irish films have. American films may be successful without crossing international lines, but Irish films cannot. Thus, the public funding attributed to Irish films is both an investment as well as a gamble. If the funded film is successful overseas, it the public funding pays for itself and draws in bigger revenue to Ireland.

Currently, McDonagh is working on his newest creation, War on Everyone, a film with a much larger budget than his previous works and features an all-star cast. Because McDonagh now has an impressive repertoire behind him, studios are much more inclined to give him a larger budget with which to work. After a director succeeds in making a string of successful low-budget independent films, studios and producers may hire directors to take on projects that require large budgets, such as period pieces, historical films, and summer blockbusters, which require a greater amount of challenges and dedication for the directors involved, but also a bigger salary. After a string of commercialized mainstream films, directors may return to their independent roots, after they have already made their biggest bucks with commercialized blockbusters, of course.

Not everyone, though, enjoyed The Guard. According to theatre manager Tom Dowling, who has a website filled with many articles about Irish cinema ranging from Brendon Gleeson to an analysis of Jimmy’s Hall, wrote an article explaining why Irish films do not do well in UK markets, a fact even McDonagh admits. Dowling said, “I did not enjoy The Guard; it was unimaginative and the humour was just not funny, and with so many expletive in every sentence it was never going to do well in either an American or Australian market. It success in Ireland has done nothing to change even the perception of the majority of film audience in Ireland” (Dowling). Dowling wrote an article summarizing why Irish films tend to not do well in UK markets, a fact even McDonagh admitted, when it took him by surprise The Guard did much better in Germany than it did in the UK [TheGuardian). Although neighbors, the English and Irish have very different cultures, and the Irish cinematic market has a difficult time gaining a UK demographic, even though the market finds successful in nations farther away. Nevertheless, the Irish film industry continues to boom. It has been responsible for the emerging careers of Michael Fassbender, Lenny Abrahamson, and Neil Jordon. The Guard is paving the way for Irish success in America and Gleeson is for sure to be an international star. For a small country, its filmmaking history remains impressive. According to its website, 20% of all tourists cite the Irish film industry as a major reason they wanted to visit Ireland. While Dowling agrees that Ireland should produce films that are culturally inclusive, mirroring the First Wave of Irish Cinema in the 70’s, at the same time he admits that if Ireland wants to remain a successful film industry, the films have to appeal to an international audience otherwise the industry would collapse. “We cannot have a successful indigenous industry,” Dowling said, “unless we produce multiplex films alongside” (Dowling).

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