Rialto review: a life in the docks, a week at sea

Tom Vaughan-Lawlor’s Dublin husband and dock manager finds his identity in sudden free fall in Peter Mackie Burns’s devastating study of repression and desperation.

Rialto (2019)

Rialto is streaming on Curzon Home Cinema.

Peter Mackie Burns’s delicate, devastating study of a married, middle-aged Dublin dock manager gutting his world within a week paints this life of quiet desperation with considerable if unsparing skill, and unusual compassion. Destabilised by grief at the recent death of his abusive father, the hangdog Colm (a piercingly convincing Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) apologetically unleashes a lifetime of repressed desire on to teen hustler Jay (Tom Glynn Carney), whose easy recourse to robbery, violence and blackmail adds to his allure.

As in the bittersweet Daphne (2017), Burn’s debut, the film keeps a watchful and wary eye on a central character in crisis. A film full of quiet, devastating truths, it’s markedly more mature than its predecessor, eschewing relatability and dark comic consolations for a bleakly tender portrait of longing and self-destruction.

Colm’s first ever cottaging encounter, a prickling mix of fear, pleading desire and Jay’s feral violence – slamming him into the toilet cubicle walls – sets the film’s uneasy tone. Though Colm finds he can’t quit Jay, Rialto is emphatically not a love story, or a cautionary tale of mid-life crisis. Rather, it is about how grief can up-end your view of yourself, shoving Colm into desperate, staggering charges at his life.

When he’s ‘offered’ redundancy, this second destabilising and somehow shameful blow visibly crumbles his sense of identity, rendering his behaviour positively reckless. A breakdown in all but name, it is underlined by Burns’s adroit use of unsettling close-ups, and in the way that the camera’s point of view moves from its initial high, Colm-squeezing view towards intimate eye-level exchanges in his trysts with Jay.

Tom Vaughan-Lawlor as Colm and Tom Glynn Carney as Jay

Mark O’Halloran’s subtly claustrophobic script traps us with Colm, as each furtive misstep away from his dutiful daily round sends him further into free-fall. Colm’s closely observed mix of guilt, irritable despair and strange exhilaration is nicely balanced by O’Halloran with Jay’s scrappy, amoral pragmatism. As the two bond uneasily, neither identifying as gay, they are both victim and exploiter (though without the complexities of, for example, Lorenzo Vigas’s twistily redemptive From Afar, 2015). When a swaggering Jay threatens Colm at his office, Burn’s direction sets the quiet scene roiling with an underlying tension of different worlds, making a colleague’s curiosity a needling horror.

The film is painfully acute about the constraints of Irish working-class masculinity and its laddish homophobia (Colm’s sporty son Shane despises his gentle father) – a snapshot of Colm as a sad, marooned face in a shouting male huddle entranced by a sports match on a pub TV is sharply resonant.

Another of O’Halloran’s deft unpickings of marginalised Irish men (along with his tragicomic screenplays for Lenny Abrahamson – Adam & Paul, 2004, and Garage, 2007), Rialto rarely betrays its roots in the theatre – a 2011 two-hander, Trade. The emotional asymmetry of Colm and Jay’s meetings, which slide between Colm’s hungry longing and Jay’s brusque all-business act, is nicely complicated by the film’s interest in the sins and fallibilities of fathering, with Jay turning tricks to provide for the baby daughter he’s barely given access to.

Unflinchingly, the filmmakers treat the male body as both a threat and a site of desire, contrasting Colm’s cowed posture and desire for domination with Jay’s offhand ease, in their resolutely unglamourised, even painful sexual encounters. Outside these intimacies, Burns creates a fine sense of Colm’s close-knit pub-and-piety network of Dublin family and friends, whose nosiness polices transgressions and social norms.

Monica Dolan as Claire with Tom Vaughan-Lawlor

It’s resolutely a man’s world, where women are presented chiefly as drags on Colm’s guilty leap for liberty, his grieving mother’s reliance on him a millstone, his wife a bewildered obstacle to his drunken unravelling. Only Monica Dolan’s sideswiped wife Claire registers, gamely trying to repair her withered marriage, in a film carried by two fine central performances.

Glynn Carney infuses Jay with a feral charisma that owes something to the IRA killer he memorably incarnated on stage in Jez Butterworth’s 2017 play The Ferryman, while Vaughan-Lawlor absolutely inhabits Colm, anxiety and appetite wrestling across his face. Struggling through softly beautiful twilight-blue Dublin dunes, grimacing at his inability to drown himself, he takes us inside Colm’s misery without melodrama.

A lean, evocative movie, Rialto heightens its emotional intensity with sparing use of Valentin Hadjadj’s dissonant score, and by smuggling swift, telling images into DP Adam Scarth’s lowkey visual style. A bird’s-eye-view finds Colm bolting down shopping centre escalators like a spooked animal, screaming silently from the platform of a towering crane, or twitching in a golden square of kitchen window within a night-dark frame, trapped like a moth in a situation that threatens to crush the life from him.