Breath on a window pane. A finger slowly and carefully traces through the grey condensation, drawing a smiley face. This image encapsulates Irish drama Glassland; delicate, warmly human and, though it may fade away soon enough, it lingers in the memory long after it has melted away.
Kind hearted but poverty stricken taxi driver John (Jack Reynor) is carrying the weight of the world as well as passengers. His cocky best friend Shane (Will Poulter) is struggling with child custody, his disabled brother (Harry Nagle) hates his care home and his own home is empty of food and affection. With his alcoholic mother Jean (Toni Collette) in need of costly rehab to qualify for a life saving liver transplant, John is forced to seek the cash in a lucrative but illegal fashion.
Any synopsis of Glassland is inevitably somewhat misleading; in terms of plot relatively little happens over its 90 minute runtime, and what does read on paper as another grimly miserabilist kitchen sink drama. Indeed the opening 20 minutes seems to confirm that impression, with alcohol poisoning, hospital dashes and histrionic shouting creating the depressing atmosphere of “seen-it-all before”. As John lies in bed, drumming his fingers against the wall and narrating “I can’t do this anymore,” the audience would be forgiven for feeling the same.
But it is in the details that Glassland shows it is much more. Watering down milk so it lasts, a paltry three vegetable grocery purchase, the agonising about affording new plates after a destructive episode, lends the film an admirable honesty. This holds true for the character work too. In a remarkable sequence set to Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love,” Jean, a drink in hand, dances with childlike glee, before a jump cut to the swayings of a morose alcoholic. Her addiction, as she matter-of-factly explains, is fuelled by loss and loneliness. When she asks who she will dance with now, it is both earnest and moving.
The performances are strong across the board. Jack Reynor is a charming screen presence, sweet, winning and a far cry from the Travis Bickle school of taxi driving, but with plenty of steel and grit underneath. Poulter mines great depth from a superficially cheeky tearaway, showing the wounded heart beneath the youthful bravado. These turns, along with Michael Smiley’s kindly counsellor and Toni Collette’s unshowy and unselfconscious treatment of Jean, help elevate what threatened to be a dreary slog into an affecting experience.
Credit must also go to writer/director Gerard Barrett, whose sensitive handling, restrained, almost clinical, shooting style and nuanced eye for character give the film a warm heart. In only his second feature, his narrative skills may require more attention; a slow start and an abrupt finish hamper an otherwise solid story, particularly as John’s actions in the final act are certain to have consequences after the credits roll. But such is the strength of Glassland, whatever Barrett breathes life into or makes his mark on next is sure to be greatly anticipated.
Glassland is released in UK cinemas on 17th April 2015.