Holy Island: an enigmatic Irish picaresque

Conjuring a trenchantly Irish psychic landscape, Robert Manson’s second film is at its best when it leans into its own absurdity and toys imaginatively with language.

2 November 2022

By Ruairí McCann

Jeanne Nicole Ní Áinle as Rosa in Holy Island (2021)
Sight and Sound

In an early draft of The Third Policeman (1967), a comic novel of absurd metaphysics by the great Irish writer Flann O’Brien, the cyclical tale arrives at the conclusion that “hell goes round and round”. This phrase – literally and as an intonement of a certain laconic, fatalist strain of the Irish character – rings true for Holy Island, the second feature by writer-director Robert Manson.

The film is a journey through the looking glass of tortured wayfarer David (Conor Madden), exploring his fears, regrets, and tentative hopes for redemption, and charting a trenchantly Irish psychic landscape in the process. A sparse limbo of churches and pubs, punctuated by bright Super 8 vistas, enlivens the film’s dominant digital palette of murky black and white – as does the sheer vivacity of Jeanne Nicole Ní Áinle as David’s companion Rosa.

Holy Island is at its best when it leans into its absurdity and toys imaginatively with language. It’s a sometimes playful, sometimes twisted evocation of a culture with the gift of the gab, and its verbal landscape is a potent purgatory for the uncommunicative David. Manson is contributing to a tradition of language as a site of modernist adventurism and satire, a vein which, in Ireland, runs back to Joyce and on to O’Brien. It’s amusingly expressed in David’s repeated encounters with an old storyteller (Arthur Riordan), whose yarn gets further tangled with each interruption. The film begins to feel like a horror when a doze in a bingo hall leads to a vision of a devilish figure who speaks in spiky torrents of gibberish, like a bingo caller’s patter curdled and turned hostile.

Like any picaresque, the film draws much of its strength from its side characters, of whom the most indelible is Les (Mark Doherty). A ferryman of souls in the body of a bullish taxi driver, Doherty gives a great rendition of pure, inexplicable passive-aggression, his every line laced with latent threat. Madden and Ní Áinle also make for an engaging central pair: their performances are complementary, with Madden delivering a minimalist, mumbling performance of a man who at first seems to be suffering from an almighty hangover, only to steadily reveal a deep spiritual sickness. Meanwhile, Ní Áinle’s more energetic, overtly stylised performance is accompanied by a sadness that keeps her character from merely being David’s spirited guide.

Despite strong ingredients and moments, Holy Island ultimately falls short. A magical mid-movie transformation and the addition of a new character (Maria Oxley Boardman) changes the film’s emotional tenor to something more cryptic but also more confused and less engaging. And for all its ingenuity, many moments of surrealism and symbolism – two dance sequences and the introduction of tarot cards in particular – come off as received and laboured. Regardless, the film eventually sidewinds its way to a touching and ludic moment of transcendence.

► Holy Island was screening in Ireland in October; its release date in the UK is yet to be confirmed.

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