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A flight from London Stansted to Dublin Airport takes around 75 minutes. It’s a routine journey that the Irish-born, London-based filmmakers Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor have taken plenty of times, but something about this one feels different. “The ever-present noises of populism and nationalism have moved to the foreground, impossible to ignore,” says Lawlor. While the motivation for this trip is to scout locations for a film, they are also exploring the possibility of a new home in Ireland. As they weigh their growing discomfort with the UK against their ambivalent feelings towards their homeland, their position in the clouds over the Irish Sea is an apt metaphor for their state of being – halfway between two islands, and not entirely sure where they belong.
The search for identity and belonging has been the abiding theme in Molloy and Lawlor’s oeuvre. In their thriller Rose Plays Julie (2019), a young Irishwoman investigated the life of her birth mother in England and wondered if she would have been an entirely different person if she hadn’t been given up for adoption. The project that Molloy and Lawlor are researching on this journey is a biopic of the IRA operative Rose Dugdale, and as they drive across the Irish border, Molloy considers how her life might be different if she had been raised in the heart of the Troubles, rather than an hour away. “Would I have taken up arms against the occupying force? To fight, to kill, to die?” Throughout The Future Tense, the filmmakers refer to a line from A Book of Migrations, a 1997 work by Rebecca Solnit (an American writer with Irish citizenship): “In different places, different thoughts emerge.”
Stylistically, The Future Tense feels like a companion piece to Molloy and Lawlor’s Further Beyond (2016). These filmmakers approach the essay film form in a playfully self-referential way, often reminding the viewer of the artificial construct of their work and revealing any ways they might have deceived us. The Future Tense unfolds as a series of riffs, exploring a variety of ideas and drawing on an eclectic range of sources, including John Cassavetes, Walter Abish, Johannes Vermeer and Rouben Mamoulian. Some of the tangents don’t quite work – such as a skit built around the Grace O’Malley diorama in the Louisburgh Famine Museum – but the plane journey gives them a central thread to return to whenever they’ve taken an idea as far as it can go.
Further Beyond featured two actors appearing as stand-in narrators for Molloy and Lawlor, and they would have adopted the same technique here if the pandemic hadn’t disrupted their production. Instead, the two filmmakers sit in front of a microphone reading their narration, and after making a joke of their awkwardness at first, it ends up working in the film’s favour. The Future Tense is more scattershot and less structurally robust than Further Beyond, but the presence of the filmmakers themselves telling their personal stories helps keep it rooted in something real.
This choice feels particularly important when Joe Lawlor is discussing his late mother Helen, whose story featured in Further Beyond and again becomes central here. Born in New York, Helen was shipped back to Ireland as an unaccompanied eleven-month-old, and thereafter she struggled to find her place before she began to suffer from mental health issues that led to her spending periods in an asylum. Lawlor recalls seeing her medicated in a padded cell, and he particularly remembers the green walls and door. No colour is more closely associated with Ireland than green, but the filmmakers find it resonating in darker ways here. Helen’s grim cell; the stains around the mouth of a desperate famine victim who tried to eat grass; or the famous green grass of Maryon Park, immortalised in Antonioni’s Blowup (1966). It is here that Lawlor imagines his mother and father reconsidering their decision to settle in London after being refused a mortgage. “They must have concluded they were in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he says, “or maybe, just the wrong people.”
In the medical notes that Lawlor retrieved from his mother’s files, one ambiguous quote from her stands out: “I want to go home, but I don’t want to go back there.” It is a line that seems to get at the heart of the filmmakers’ project. By the end of this film, it’s uncertain if Molloy and Lawlor are any closer to deciding their family’s future, but the journey they take us on is an illuminating and thought-provoking one. The Future Tense is a witty, thoughtful and inquisitive piece of filmmaking, and it will undoubtedly strike a chord with many expats who are similarly trying to define the meaning of home.