That They May Face the Rising Sun: a quietly captivating experience

Pat Collins approaches John McGahern’s final novel about a couple’s return to rural Ireland with the attentive eye of a documentarian, encouraging viewers to adjust to a slower pace of life along with the film’s protagonists.

That They May Face the Rising Sun (2023)

“Does anything happen, or is it the usual heavy going?” a novelist is asked about his latest book in That They May Face the Rising Sun. “Not much drama,” he replies, “more day-to-day stuff.” This response acts as a wry self-commentary on Pat Collins’s film. That They May Face the Rising Sun is concerned with the everyday lives of a small group of characters in a lakeside village in the west of Ireland. A few things do happen in the film – a wedding, a death – but there is little in the way of standard drama and conflict, and no firm narrative shape beyond the passage of time and the changing of the seasons.

It’s hard to imagine a filmmaker better suited to bringing John McGahern’s final novel to the screen than Pat Collins. The central theme of Collins’s work to date has been Irishness itself, with his documentaries (including John McGahern: A Private World, filmed a year before the author’s death in 2006) exploring aspects of Irish life and culture that have largely disappeared amid the country’s rapid modernisation. Collins has incorporated narrative techniques into his documentary work, notably Silence (2012) and Song of Granite (2017), and his first dramatic ­feature feels very much of a piece with what went before.

Collins often requests a degree of patience from his viewers, encouraging us to adjust to a slower pace of life, and he sets the tone here with the opening credits, which invite us to watch the dawn gradually breaking on the horizon. This region of Ireland in the 1980s is one that still lives by the old ways. There are rumours of telephone poles being installed in the area soon, but for now the news is primarily shared at Sunday Mass, or by walking across the fields to visit to your neighbours. Much of the film takes place in the kitchen of Joe and Kate Ruttledge (Barry Ward and Anna Bederke), a young couple who swam against the tide by leaving London to relocate in the county where Joe was born. Joe was written as McGahern’s surrogate, and it’s through his interactions with his neighbours that we get an understanding of this community, with a few characters emerging as particularly vivid portraits of the area’s lonely rural Irish men.

That They May Face the Rising Sun (2023)

Many of those living here have rarely if ever ventured beyond the county’s borders, and while some – like the gregarious, gossiping Jamesie (Phillip Dolan) – are contented with their lot in life, there is a real sadness underlying the scenes with Bill (Brendan Conroy), a farmhand damaged by his brutal upbringing. There is also great poignancy in the story of Johnny (Seán McGinley), who left Ireland for a demeaning job in London and now doesn’t feel entirely at home in either place; but the most compelling figure of all is Patrick, played by the extraordinary Lalor Roddy. Once regarded as a gifted young actor destined for bigger things, Patrick is now a scrappy odd-job man who occasionally comes around to make a half-baked attempt at building Joe’s shed. He can be charismatic and witty, but he also has a bitter, abrasive side and a habit of pushing people away before they can see any hint of vulnerability in him. The brief but potent flashes of loneliness and suppressed emotions that we glimpse in these characters complicate a film that may appear, on the surface, to be a nostalgic picture-postcard vision of rural Irish life.

Collins and his co-writer Éamon Little have wisely taken an elliptical approach to adapting McGahern’s work. Characters drift in and out of the picture, narrative threads are unresolved, and much is left unsaid; all we get is a brief window into these lives, and an evocative snapshot of a particular time and place. Collins frequently punctuates scenes with Ozu-style ‘pillow shots’ of the landscape and he often observes his characters in quiet contemplation, strolling down a country path and enjoying the sun on their faces, with the film’s unhurried rhythm affording us the same space to appreciate these fleeting moments. It’s such mundane details that make up the stuff of life – as local businessman The Shah (John Olohan) puts it, “The rain comes down, the sun shines, grass grows, children grow old and die. That’s the holy all of it” – and Collins brings the curious, attentive eye of the documentarian to capturing these moments, making That They May Face the Rising Sun a quietly captivating experience.

 ► That They May Face the Rising Sun is in UK cinemas from 26 April.