Family Fortunes – ★★
Director Mark O’Connor came to Irish film fans’ attention with his 2010 gangster film Between the Canals which starred the singer-songwriter Damien Dempsey. The film was a modest success and marked out O’Connor as one to watch. Since then he’s made two films, the first of which is now finally seeing a release in cinemas. King of The Travellers was filmed in late 2011 and O’Connor has since debuted another film Stalker, which premiered at last’s years Galway Film Fleadh to very positive reviews. O’Connor preceded that debut screening with a reading of his own manifesto for a new wave of Irish cinema, an attention-grabbing summation of the talent in play across Ireland film right now. Its impact was lost on us due to his heralding Charlie Cassanova as some sort of era-defining masterpiece when Spooool.ie’s zero-stars review of it clearly marks it out as a work of utter bollocks.
So while O’Connor might rather we were talking about Stalker and his new wave, we first have his sophomore effort King of The Travellers to deal with. The film deals with two feuding families of travellers living on sites in North County Dublin. At the heart of the story is John Paul Moorhouse (John Connors, making his feature debut) who is still struggling with the murder of his father a decade ago, which has been made even tougher following the return of the Powers family to the area, headed by the man who he believes was behind the hit. J.P. is a brilliant fighter and self-styled “King of the Travellers” who defends his family’s honour while being pushed on by his best friend and cousin “Mickey The Bags” (Peter Coonan from RTE’s “Love/Hate”). Michael Collins (“Glenroe”, Pavee Lackeen) plays Uncle Francis, the de-facto head of the family since the death of JP’s father.
In a nod to films like The Godfather and The Deerhunter, the film’s first major scene is at a wedding. Here we get to know the Moorhouse family and are introduced to their worries, namely a Gardaí operation to move them on from their site and the issuing of a challenge by the Powers family. It’s pretty brave to kick your film off with reference points from directors like Coppola and Cimino but it actually works quite well and makes for one of the film’s strongest scenes. Things start to drag as the film progresses with a Hallowe’en scene featuring a vision of JP’s Dad being laughably awkward. The Shakespearean-overtones with subtle nods to Hamlet and not-so-subtle references to Romeo & Juliet (JP rekindles a childhood friendship with one of the Powers girls) don’t work at all and when everything comes to a head in a final act that just goes for broke, you’re just willing those credits to roll.King of The Travellers is well shot and feels like an authentic view of life as a member of the travelling community in Ireland but is let down down by a very bad script. The range of acting abilities on show is ridiculous with some stand-out performances from the likes of Connors (JP) and Collins (Francis) – both real-life travellers – but then truly woeful showings from a lot of the supporting cast. O’Connor will argue that his decision to try and cast as many real-life travellers as possible means you’re pushing for realism and going to get a mixed-bag of performances but when a single dodgy reading of a line upsets the flow of an entire scene it is a serious problem, and one that is all too prevalent here.
We’ve had a few years of exposure to Irish travellers since the much-derided but wildly successful Into the West got everyone excited in the mid-90s. As well as the little-seen but worthwhile Pavee Lackeen we’ve also had the feature documentary Knuckle, TV3’s spate of documentaries and the runaway success of the Channel 4 series My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding and . These have all shed a light on the eccentricities and traditions that they fight to preserve in a society that has been pre-conditioned to ostracise them. O’Connor has to be credited for trying to bring a new story about their world to the screen but ultimately it’s way too rough and ready to recommend.
Here’s hoping his next film Stalker puts all those great ideas from the manifesto to better use…
Ireland / Directed By: Mark O’Connor / Written By: Mark O’Connor / Starring: John Connors, Peter Coonan, Michael Collins / 80min / Drama / Release: 19 April 2013 (Ireland)
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