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24 March 2023

God’s Creatures is a powerful portrait of a toxic mother-son relationship

Paul Mescal and Emily Watson bring inner darkness to this story of trauma in a tiny Irish town.

By David Sexton

Tragedy tears apart a tiny community on Ireland’s west coast? Again? Already? Mark O’Connell wrote a persuasive essay in Slate earlier this year, “Blarney: The Banshees of Inisherin and the put-on Irishness of Martin McDonagh”, deploring that film’s use of “the hoariest of Irish stereotypes” and consigning its ambitions to a theatrical genre he dubbed “Light Tragedy”.

At first glance, God’s Creatures, the story of a prodigal son’s disastrous return to a tiny fishing village, might appear to belong to exactly this school of filmmaking. Yet it turns out to be a good deal stranger and darker than such a summary might suggest.

The film is ultimately the creation of its producer, Fodhla Cronin O’Reilly, whose first feature, Lady Macbeth, won many awards. She grew up in a fishing village in Kerry and had always wanted to make a film about that “primal landscape” in which, she says, humble lives feel epic, even mythical. As screenwriter, she recruited Shane Crowley, a childhood friend: this is his first work, developed over many years.

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To direct the movie, though, she turned to New York-based filmmakers Saela Davis and Anna Rose Holmer. Their 2015 feature debut The Fits is a stunningly original piece of work, about the coming of age of an 11-year-old girl as she joins a competitive dance team in a black community centre in Cincinnati. Almost an avant-garde ballet, which is powered by a percussive soundtrack, it is strikingly well composed and edited, highly physical yet abstract, embracing the work and repetition that goes into performance. That formal sensibility is at work in God’s Creatures too – and it has nothing to do with stage Irishry.

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God’s Creatures opens with a drowning. The men of this village may all make a living from the sea but they don’t learn to swim – so as not to be called upon to risk their lives to save another’s, we hear. The women are stuck in the fish-processing plant – gutting, filleting, sorting oysters – on a conveyor belt. “We’re like donkeys that have been broken,” says the youngest, Sarah (Aisling Franciosi). “For fuck’s sake, we could have been anything – teachers, nurses, hairdressers.”

At the wake for the drowned man in the village bar, the prodigal son, Brian, suddenly reappears after seven years away – played by Paul Mescal (after Normal People, “the most desired man in the country”, the Times observed). Brian’s mother, Aileen (Emily Watson), the forewoman but not the boss of the processing plant, is overjoyed, clasping him tight, coming alive. Whatever his reasons for leaving then, and returning now, penniless, he can do no wrong in her eyes. It’s a toxic relationship, we soon understand.

Brian’s plan is to revive the family’s abandoned oyster beds – and Aileen helps him, even stealing from the plant to do so. He is less admired by the other women of the village. As teenagers he and Sarah were together; now she is disillusioned with all God’s creatures. She accuses Brian of rape, truthfully, we can be sure – but Aileen unquestioningly lies to protect her son, with the authorities and the men of the village backing her up. Aileen, however, begins to realise the consequences of her actions. We see her face more and more in close-up, ever more tormented.

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God’s Creatures, filmed in the harbour village of Teelin in County Donegal, never deviates into the picturesque. The light is low, the sea grey and threatening, the skies clouded, the homes nondescript. The most dramatic environment is the punishing processing shed, where fish guts and discarded shells seem the main product. Even the oyster racks that Brian works, chest high in dangerous waters, are made the focus of a grinding, repetitious task. Driving the film is a discordant, ominous soundtrack, by the same composers, Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, who contributed so much to The Fits. As in that film, many of the best sequences are wordless.

Some of the speeches become over-explicit near the end. But Emily Watson’s face is so expressive as she comes to terms with what she has done, and Paul Mescal so easily brings inner darkness to his external appeal that words are hardly needed. God’s Creatures looks hard at its subjects, and makes you look and come to judgement too. Blarney, it’s not.

If it’s the opposite of a feel-good movie, nonetheless the protracted, speech-free last scene, is optimistic and highly moving. Shot inside a car, it shows Sarah driving away, along the coastline, into sunlight. Perhaps she at least can escape.

“God’s Creatures” is in cinemas now

[See also: How The Fabelmans, a box-office bomb in the US, became an instant classic in France]

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This article appears in the 29 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special