Narrative, 90 min
Directed by Tom Collins
Hardacre: Saturday, August 2, 7:00pm
Judging from the subtitles in Kings, words which do not translate very easily into 21st century Gaelic include: ‘fuck’, ‘global economy’, ‘Euro’, ‘foreman’, and ‘lads.’ This makes a tragic sort of sense for the characters in Tom Collins’ movie, as these are some of the things that seem most to complicate the lives and generally reduce the happiness of the Irish emigrants he depicts. Kings is the film adaptation of the Jimmy Murphy play, Kings of the Kilburn High Road, a reference to a once Irish-dominated neighborhood in NW London which is, in more recent years, increasingly populated by non-European immigrants to Britain. The story is organized around the death of Jackie Flaherty, who is a fellow immigrant and close mate of the film’s central characters. Jackie has just been killed by a subway train, in circumstances which may or may not have been accidental, and the movie uses his death as the central point around which to organize reflections by his surviving friends on their past together and their current lives in London. These stories, individual and collective, are told through flashbacks to the lads’ younger days and their arrival in London, and about a third of the film is set at Jackie’s wake, held in the back room of a pub on the Kilburn High Road.
Many of the traditional themes of immigrant narratives are on display: what does home mean? is it based on culture or kinship? are you still Irish after 25 years away from Ireland? is leaving home for economic opportunity a form of betrayal? what obligations does one immigrant have to others? Collins, though, deals with these questions in new and interesting ways, not the least of which is the language itself. The vast majority of the spoken dialogue is in Irish and Kings claims to be the first bilingual feature release in both Irish and English.
At the risk of giving away spoilers, drinking predominates in this film of working class Irish life. One of the film’s better lines is Jap’s response to a query about whether he would like a drink (“do I have a mouth?”), but somehow for a film set largely in bars, drink as a theme still has to work pretty hard for airtime amongst the others stuff that Collins has to tell us. The acting, almost without exception, is quite sharp and features Donal O’Kelley’s award-nominated performance as Jap, the bitter and combative drunk whose fading hope and romanticism about returning to Ireland is one of the film’s best tricks. We get to see, for the cast as a whole, the various points at which ‘the fire goes out’ and each man resigns himself to his current circumstances and lets go the false dream of a return to a prouder, happier life in an Ireland that no longer exists.
Kings is not a low-budget picture by any measure. Production values are high (two caterers and a dialogue coach can be spotted in the closing credits) and it is clear from the financial involvement of the Irish Film Board that there is concern for presenting this film properly to a foreign audience. Kings was in fact Ireland’s entry to the best foreign film category at last year’s Oscars. Much of the film is shot in close ups of the dialogue, in which we get to see every creased face, smudged collar, yellowed tooth, greasy necktie, and grayed hair, all of which carry home the struggle and hardship of 25 years of immigrant life in the contemporary UK. Collins juxtaposes this focus with a larger background of unremitting grey- dingy neighborhoods and washed out buildings against a heavy, gray London sky. The bright spots, indeed, are pretty tough to find. Struggles with finding work, struggles with married life, struggles with drink, and most importantly internal struggles about what it means to be a ‘Paddy’ come to the surface quickly and powerfully in this solid film.