McGahern’s leisurely swansong finally reaches the screen

McGahern’s leisurely swansong finally reaches the screen

“That blasted book near killed me,” John McGahern said to me of his final novel, That They May Face the Rising Sun. He put more of himself into it than any of his other ones. That’s saying something. It has now been made into a film (Cert 15).

I didn’t ‘get’ the book when I read it first. It wasn’t chaptered. There were many lengthy paragraphs bedecked with apparently inconsequential details. Was ‘The Master’ losing his discipline?

Then it dawned on me that the non-eventfulness was deliberate, that he was seeking to convey a Zen-like tranquility. Pat Collins brings the same sense of susurrating uneventfulness to the film. We’re not watching a plot unfold but rather life going on.

Joe and Kate Ruttledge (Barry Ward, Anna Bederke) have come from the hustle-bustle of London to a closely-knit community of local colour in Leitrim. They become touchstones for neighbours who drop in to relay their tidbits of news to them over tea – or something stronger.

A year in their lives is presented to us. We witness a wedding, a wake, an emigrant’s unwanted return. The seasons pass. There’s a plaintive sense of transience.

Joe writes and farms. Kate paints. They keep bees. Their visitors – Johnny Murphy (Sean McGinley), The Shah (John Olahan), Mary Murphy (Ruth McCabe), Bill Evans (Brendan Conroy), Jamesie Murphy (Phillip Dolan), Patrick Ryan (Lalor Roddy) – are all ‘characters’.

Handyman Roddy gives the most cerebral performance. Ward underwhelms as McGahern’s alter ego. In the book he was a kind of shaman. Here he’s a somewhat smug hail-fellow-well-met observer, an ‘ordinary’ Joe.

Bederke gets to do little except smile benignly – and speak in a rather mysterious accent.

There are brilliant vignettes. Collins piquantly portrays McGahern’s world of diaspora, lonely bachelors, rutted lanes, earthy banter… and an ambivalent attitude to religion.

This world is disappearing. We experience its rough-hewn parameters through big and little lives.

Patrick Kavanagh said, “Gods make their own importance.” The profundity of the quotidian is fomented by the bucolic quirks of these amiable eccentrics. Their emblematisation is the votive lamp that sustains Collins’ bittersweet pastoral.

We smile at – and with – them. They provide pub stool soundbites about marriage, farming, the past, the future… and what the weather is doing.

It may appear like a cliché to say the landscape is like another character in the film.  Richard Kendrick’s stunning cinematography makes it so. An elegiac script from Collins and Eamon Little (with an over-abundance of expletives) completes the package.

The film has received multiple kudos far and wide but at times it overplays its underplaying, if that doesn’t sound disingenuous. I still think Korea is the greatest McGahern film out there.  There’s something missing here, something that should lift it to the cathartic level of the book.

What would the man himself think of it? Considering the fact that he didn’t watch adaptations of his books he probably wouldn’t have said much more than, “Arrah sure I suppose it’ll do.”