Feature Film: Silence

Rural Ireland seen through its sounds and its silence in Pat Collins’ enigmatic film about a sound recordist’s travels in his native home.


Silence – a feature film, a documentary, a thoughtful essay on exile and returning home, or all of the above – director Pat Collins has made an enigmatic and melancholy film that defies categorisation. It opens quietly, with a soft song on tape and a look through a broken window at a windswept rural landscape. When the landscape switches to the big city with its screeching trams and rumbling cars, it is jarring, and it establishes the rare filmic use of sound as its primary medium.

Sound recordist Eoghan, played by co-writer Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhride, lives in Berlin, where trams squeal and thunder, and conversations are drowned out by the city noise. He is about to start a job in Ireland, a place he left some 15 years before, to record landscapes free from man-made noise.

It’s a quirky kind of job, and watching his journey across the Irish countryside is oddly compelling. Against a backdrop of low cloud, forested hillsides and long grass bent low by the wind, he records the almost incessant sounds of birdsong and wind and water – despite what the film’s title may suggest, silence itself is rare. The wind sighs and howls, the sea crashes, the rain drips, when the film does have a silent moment, it’s unsettling.

His progress marked by wrinkled maps and unsentimental black and white footage of an Ireland long past, Eoghan tries to keep himself to himself, yet he encounters people in the most remote places. The stories they tell pull him, almost against his will, it seems, back to the island where he grew up.

There’s a melancholy feel about Silence. As the film progresses, it is less obviously about sound, and more about history and transience. Director and writer Pat Collins expressed a concern that the film wouldn’t translate, that it was very Irish, but he needn’t worry. There’s a universal element to it, with its underlying exploration of the theme of exile, both from home and the past.

Collins is an award-winning documentary filmmaker, and Silence is his first foray into fictional territory. It was inspired by his long-standing fascination with folklore collectors such as Seamus Ennis who travelled Ireland in the 1930s collecting stories for the Irish Folklore Commission, an Irish government department set up to study, collect and instill Irish cultural traditions. But he wanted to make something contemporary, something that avoided nostalgia, so hit on the idea of a sound recordist.

“I wanted someone who was moving through the landscape and meeting people,” he said in an interview following the screening. “He is trying to get away from people, which is the opposite of a folklore collector. But he is drawn to people who want to tell him stories.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly given Collins’ background, there is a strong documentary format to Silence. The film moves at a languorous pace, the camera lingering on the landscape and Eoghan’s encounters with the people he meets. As they tell him their stories, the camera remains static, rather than flitting between them, Collins wanted to give the viewer the time to look and listen.

He employs a cast of mostly non-professional actors, who are essentially playing themselves, in a refreshingly naturalistic and unselfconscious way. Collins cites Abbas Kiarostami’s theory of the “half-made film”, the idea that the filmmaker needs to only complete 50 percent of a film as the audience will bring the other 50, filling in the gaps with their own ideas and interpretations.

For a film so focused on sound, it’s the images that have stayed with me – Eoghan getting drenched by the pouring rain; Eoghan striding past a lighthouse on Tory Island, silhouetted by the setting sun; Eoghan dwarfed by the waves crashing down on a rocky coast. If nothing else, Silence is a sensory treat.

Feature Film: Iron Man 3

There’s a certain trepidation involved when going to see a sequel, particularly the third in a series. Will it be an Empire Strikes Back or, heaven help us, a Phantom Menace? Previous experience might well advise against raised expectations.

Despite being not so well versed in superheroes, I found the first Iron Man to be smart and fun and occasionally thrilling. The second was sadly something of a disappointment; I enjoyed the character moments, but the villain didn’t grab me. I found that the third film in this series, the straightforwardly titled Iron Man 3, falls somewhere in between these two poles. The film is perhaps nothing we haven’t seen before, but while it remains overly enthralled by its own gadgetry, it does tick all the action-adventure-superhero boxes with a witty script, explosive set pieces and a villain set on world domination. As part of the wider series of movies released over the last few years featuring Marvel’s superheroes, Iron Man 3 also has some lovely little references to the other films, which should keep fans happy.

As the film starts, billionaire-genius-industrialist Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) is not at his best. His wry voice-over recounts a seemingly innocuous encounter some years previously, before returning to his obsessive and sleep-deprived present. Stark is not dealing too well with the events from the previous movie The Avengers, and his relationships are suffering because of it, as he focuses all his attention on experimenting with a growing number of new Iron Man suits. Downey displays a great talent for physical comedy in this sequence, which prepares us for things to come; the poor man does get bashed about a fair bit in this movie.

The film’s opening sequence sets up what Stark has to lose; principally girlfriend Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). She keeps him grounded, as much as anyone can, and their relationship is really rather sweet (I do also enjoy characters with weirder names than my own). Yet despite this witty opening, the film takes a while to really get going. The set up of the scientific techno-babble behind the villain’s dastardly plot is confusing to say the least, not that this really matters much, as Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) is clearly up to no good, with his sharp suits and his slicked-back hair. And then there’s the charismatic Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), with his fleeting and menacing appearances, which promise something worse to come.

After a spectacular, and very loud, assault on his Malibu home, Stark spends a good portion of the movie separated from his suit of armour, and cut off from his trusty artificial intelligence Jarvis (voiced by Paul Bettany). He is forced to rely on his “smarts”, reminding both himself and the audience that he is really an inventor at heart. This seems to be the underlying question of the movie: what is Tony Stark without the suit? This neatly side-steps the main pitfall of Iron Man 3, and other films like it, namely that invulnerable superheroes with no weaknesses do not make for good stories. That they win through in the end should come as no surprise, but it should at least look like a struggle.

Downey portrays Stark with weaknesses aplenty – anxiety attacks, recklessness, obsessive behaviour, to name just a few. The man has issues. He covers for it with a fine line in banter, even if he’s not quite the hip and droll person he was in the first two movies. This is still a great performance – something we come to expect from Robert Downey Jr (how could it be anything else?). The supporting cast, including Don Cheadle as Colonel James Rhodes and Rebecca Hall as Stark’s old-flame Maya Hansen, are reliable, even if they don’t get a great deal to do. I can’t say too much about Ben Kingsley for fear of giving away the plot, but suffice to say, he’s quite brilliant.

The special effects are, predictably, superb, which isn’t necessarily a good thing. Director Shane Black seems a little too fond of explosions, which threaten to overwhelm the story, especially when viewed in 3D. It’s a trap the previous films managed to avoid. There are sections where the film gets simply overwhelmed by the special effect wizardry, with way too many scarily enhanced henchmen and Iron Man suits of armour – I could quite understand Pepper’s exasperation. As for the action sequences, they range from edge-of-the-seat breathless (the attack on Stark’s house) to cheerfully preposterous (the mid-air rescue) but they all go on a little too long, giving the film a bloated feeling and leaving me with a “seen one explosion, you’ve seen them all” kind of reaction. A bit of judicious cutting to an explosion here, a punch there, wouldn’t have gone amiss. All this being said, however, Iron Man 3 is a fun piece of escapist entertainment for a movie-going audience with middling expectations.

Do remember to stay until the end of the credits, though – it’s one of the best scenes in the movie.

Iron Man 3 is screening in cinemas across the UK.