Saturday, January 29, 2022

Doineann – no one is as they first seem in this brooding island thriller (QFT until 3 February)

Tomás, Siobhán and baby Oisín are living in a modern house on an island off the coast of County Donegal. Tomás is an investigative journalist specialising in gangland exposés. But, soon the island’s retired Gardaí officer is doing her own digging into a double disappearance as the storm clouds gather over the small community.

The isolation of island life is quickly established as Tomás (Peter Coonan) heads over to the mainland to meet an informant key to his latest documentary. Siobhán (Clare Monnelly) is suspected of having post-natal depression and the child may not be too well. The local boatman, Macdara, who can turn his hand to fixing anything (Seán T. Ó Meallaigh) is portrayed as being ‘touched’ but harmless. Niall Cusack plays the island’s mad conspiracist oaf Mícheál.

The small cast of characters in Doineann are at first tightly drawn; yet the soundscape and music from the always splendid Score Draw Music use distressed strings to hint that there’s more going on than the eye first sees. And sure enough, no one turns out to be quite how they are initially portrayed in this island thriller directed by Damian McCann.

Bríd Brennan is superb as Labhaoise, depicting an outwardly laid-back and chilled investigator who belies her sharp instincts that can quietly spot the smallest detail that is out of place. There’s a gentle and unforced complexity in Aislinn Clarke script that conceives a character who can start a man hunt by popping on the kettle, yet also leans towards natural justice over criminal proceedings. If the BBC’s Death in Paradise ever needs to relocate to a not-so-tropical Donegal island, Labhaoise/Brennan should immediately be hired.

Another drama like Hidden Assets – which Peter Coonan starred in for a few episodes before (spoiler) meeting his grizzly end – would see detectives pursuing court orders to log the phone numbers of incoming and outgoing calls of people of interest and use the data to pursue the mystery caller who hung up without leaving a message before the kidnapping.

But Doineann isn’t a traditional police procedural, and Labhaoise – somewhat unusually – doesn’t even need to solve the mystery. She just has to turn over enough stones during the first half of the film to give the audience time to ponder what’s really going across the island before one character narrates the answer in the second. An earlier scene is revisited, and we watch and reinterpret what was happening with invigorated insight.

Aside from the overwritten dialogue in some of the early scenes – less is nearly always more – this hindsighted storytelling device teeters on the edge of becoming the film’s Achilles’ heel. Since neither the audience nor the police have worked that hard, or got that lucky, to determine the true happenings on the island, the pay-off for the viewer rests on whether the manner of the explanation and the drama of final moments of the film deliver satisfaction or produce a sense of frustration. For me, the quality of Brennan’s performance and Monnelly’s control of Siobhán’s emotions save the day, but there was still left with a nagging doubt that it had all been too easy and there was surely a further twist just around the corner.

The prevalent seascapes – filmed in County Down – dominate the visual imagery. It’s a relatively low budget feature, yet the production’s eye for detail – like the bottle of ‘Tropical Storm’ shampoo that helps English-speaking audiences who don’t know the meaning of the film’s Irish title – gives it a real feeling of quality. Watched through subtitles, it could pass for a great 95 minutes of Scandi Noir if it was scheduled some Saturday night on BBC Four. Great to see the Irish language film industry in fine fettle.

Doineann is being screened in Queen’s Film Theatre until 3 February and is also on release in Downpatrick (Omniplex), Dublin (IFI, Lighthouse), Galway (Palas and Omniplex Salthill) and Cork (Omniplex). 

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