An adaptation of Irish author John McGahern’s last novel That They May Face the Rising Sun, the new film by Pat Collins centres on a creative couple, Joe (Barry Ward) and Kate Ruttledge (Anna Bederke), who have moved from London back to Joe’s remote Irish hometown to try out a new lifestyle away from the bustle of the metropolis. The story covers a year in the life of the remote lakeside setting, where the beauty of the Irish landscape, daily work rituals and the couple’s engagement with the community are detailed with remarkable simplicity.
Filmed on the shore of Loch Nafooey, County Galway, this is the latest work from a director who, in contemplative films such as Silence (2012), Song of Granite (2017) and Henry Glassie: Field Work (2019), is known for his observational style, his attentive recordings of natural sound and his focus on lives lived on their own terms.
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When did you first encounter John McGahern’s novel?
I would’ve been aware of him from the early 90s when I lived in Galway in my late teens, early twenties. My older sister, Noreen, was studying English in the university there, and John McGahern was a guest lecturer. Me and all my friends would read all the books that John recommended for his reading list.
Then once I started making documentaries, producer Philip King approached me to make a documentary about him. During production, John was in the middle of writing his memoir, so was in a reflective frame of mind. When I met him, it was a couple of years after he’d published That They May Face the Rising Sun. It was his final novel, and it’s my favorite of his books. I always felt I’d love to be able to adapt it, but I never really knew how. It’s quite non-dramatic and non-narrative, and that’s one of the things that attracted me to it.
What made you pick it up again 20 years later?
I had made a lot of documentaries in the meantime, and I had made a couple of dramas, which were fiction pieces with a documentary sensibility like Silence and Song of Granite. We started adapting the book in 2015, early 2016, so it’s been a long time thinking about it. I don’t think I would’ve been able to do it until now, at the age of 56. I know it’s kind of crazy, but I think I needed to have a certain amount of work behind me before making it.
Are you saying goodbye to documentary?
No, I’m making a documentary at the moment, and I’ll probably always make documentaries, because I think feature films are very, very difficult. They’re very difficult to get funding for and there’s so much difficulty attached to it in terms of locations, casting, production, shooting and editing. It’s a very long process. At the moment, everything I’m thinking of is documentary, whereas five years ago, everything I was thinking of was fiction. It keeps changing back and forth.
What appeals to you differently about these two different forms?
One of the revelations was how interesting it is to work with a group of actors and how much they can bring to it. Then in reverse, the attraction about documentary is that you’re working with a very small crew, and I love that flexibility, whether it’s to do with capturing a landscape or capturing moments of reality. If you want to get a sunset or a sunrise, you don’t have to worry about asking anybody, you just do it with your camera person and your sound person. It is very difficult to do that in a feature film structure. I don’t know how people make feature films all the time. I need the balance of documentary and fiction.
There’s something about the simplicity and honesty of the way of life depicted in the film that’s very appealing today.
It’s a period film loosely set in the very late 1970s, early 80s, because it’s very difficult to pinpoint when the book is set. It feels like one way of life is coming to an end, but it hasn’t been fully replaced by what’s to emerge yet.
The book is very close to my upbringing in lots of ways. I grew up in a similar community and it was complex. The people who lived in the Irish countryside were very dependent on each other; they offered help to each other, and everybody knew everything that was going on locally. It was an acceptance of the way things were. Many people were farm labourers and worked for very little money to keep a roof over their heads, so there was frustration.
In the film, Patrick (Lalor Roddy) has an artistic temperament and is confined to the role that he has in this community. He doesn’t have the same opportunities as somebody who’s born in London or Dublin, with access to education, but he has a great mind. That’s one of my curiosities about the ways the film is going to connect with those communities. All of this has more-or-less disappeared in Ireland, and I think it’s true in southern Italy or maybe parts of Greece or Poland. Were these communities better than say a metropolitan area? I’m not sure.
Why do you think John McGahern’s writing has such staying power?
As an Irish writer at the end of the 20th century, he bridged the gap between Joyce, Beckett and writing today. He wrote very specifically about Ireland as it was changing and modernising, and about subjects that people didn’t want to really know about. Especially with That May Face the Rising Sun, his knowledge of the characters is so deep and some of the prose is so beautiful that it still resonates today. I think anyone wanting to be a writer should read his books.
That They May Face the Rising Sun received its world premiere at the 67th BFI London Film Festival.
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