Film Review: Song of Granite

Pat Collins’ film about the life and career of Irish folk singer Joe Heaney is oblique to the point of inscrutability.
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Attempting to avoid the pitfalls of the traditional musical biopic—hitting the requisite narrative beats in a conveniently prefabricated rise-and-fall arc—director and co-writer Pat Collins adopts a style for his film about Irish folk singer Joe Heaney that’s so oblique and increasingly abstract as to risk losing the thread of Heaney’s life and career altogether. With different actors playing Heaney at various points in his life (not to mention the real Heaney turning up in scattered fragments of documentary footage that have been folded into the mix), Song of Granite is closer in intent to Todd Haynes’ experimental I’m Not There than James Mangold’s more traditional Walk the Line. But whereas viewers of Haynes’ film were likely to be familiar with the admittedly protean career of a performer as iconic as Bob Dylan, Heaney remains a comparatively little-known figure outside his native land, and Collins ultimately does little to provide viewers with a firm foothold in his life story.

Song of Granite starts out promisingly enough with an extended sequence that hews closely to the daily rhythms of young Joe’s (Colm Seoighe) hardscrabble existence in a tiny rural village. The film follows Joe as he watches or helps his father (Pól Ó Ceannabháin) dig peat, trawl for lobster at night, or erect boundary walls out of chunky granite blocks, all of it captured by DP Richard Kendrick in black-and-white hues that are as stark as the austere Irish countryside.

Collins contrasts the living power of song and poem (vividly rendered in the matched pair of recitations that open the film) with the almost robotic repetitiveness of schoolwork that requires students to mindlessly echo the Church doctrine being spoon-fed to them by their teacher. As it turns out, Heaney will be concerned with acquiring sources of poetic knowledge throughout his life, but this clearly isn’t the sort of instruction that will prove useful.

Although these opening scenes successfully avoid presenting any more tangible biographical information than the rest of the film, they nevertheless provide some much-needed context via the natural sights and sounds that will inform Heaney’s later years as a performer. And this film is particularly enamored with the act of performance, presenting a number of traditional folk songs in their entirety, albeit without any subtitles that might render the Gaelic lyrics intelligible as anything other than pure sound.

Song of Granite now leaps ahead decades with one long tracking shot of a tiny vehicle crawling across the rock-strewn landscape, from which middle-aged Joe (Mícheál Ó Chonfhaola) soon emerges. The film has also summarily changed locations to Scotland, which it almost offhandedly signals with a brief shot of a newspaper headline. Out of nowhere, Collins now introduces snippets of voiceover narration, and it’s never quite clear, given the documentary footage on hand, whether the speaker is an actor or authentic. (The end credits, incidentally, settle the matter.)

From here, the storytelling grows even more diffuse. Collins chooses to focus on mundane moments, such as Heaney, now working as a doorman in New York City, gazing stoically out a basement window. Incidents tend to be freighted with symbolism, as when Heaney caresses a granite outcropping of the building where he works, hearkening wistfully back to those long-ago childhood activities. The final third of the film, with Joe in his 60s (now played by Macdara Ó Fátharta), grows increasingly abstract to the point of inscrutability. Collins doubles down on the density of his compositions, layering in sub-Malickian montages of nature footage, mixed with sequences “artfully” stripped of synchronous sound.

Untethered from any discernible biographical reality, Collins’ imagery comes to resemble a cack-handed art film, shot through with portentous lines of poetry and significance-laden dialogue. Perhaps the worst offender comes late in the film, when Collins stages a would-be elegiac encounter between old age and youth. Whether this is literally meant to be old Joe meeting his younger self remains unclear, but, at any rate, the scene offers precious little insight into Heaney’s legacy. Ironically enough, by fitting his form a little too closely to the content of Heaney’s restlessly nomadic existence, Collins ends up fostering in viewers a similarly forlorn sense of perpetual dislocation.

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