Neasa Ni Chianain's portrait of a man in self-exile intrigues but only intermittently sustains interest.
A mysterious stranger is always intriguing, whether famous or not. In “The Stranger,” Neasa Ni Chianain (“Fairytale of Kathmandu”) crafts an evocative portrait of Neal MacGregor, a jewelry designer who turned his back on the world and ended his days in a stone shack on an inaccessible Irish island. Curiosity is certainly piqued, yet apart from MacGregor’s definitive act of seclusion, Ni Chianain only intermittently conveys why this troubled man should hold audience attention for nearly 90 minutes. Viewers will likely find the story sad and of passing interest; docu fests, Irish showcases and public TV are likely destinations.
The helmer’s approach is more or less nonlinear, filling in pieces much like one would a jigsaw puzzle, where the emergence of a pattern opens up possibilities for completing a section. The method works to a degree, allowing for surprise reveals, yet in the end, key people in MacGregor’s life never appear, and we’re left with an incomplete picture of a tormented individual whose personality, both pre- and-post self-exile, remains hazy. Ni Chianain, who narrates, had a brief encounter with MacGregor that understandably made her want to know more, and while she uncovers a fair amount, dark corners remain lost in shadow.
When she saw him, MacGregor was living on Inishbofin, a tiny island off the coast of County Donegal. He was an Englishman, viewed with suspicion by many locals wondering what a Brit was doing in a remote area known for its Sinn Fein sympathies. The answer is never clarified, but the helmer does discover some of MacGregor’s past. During the 1960s he’d been a popular student in London, the kind of gregarious guy admired by peers. He studied cabinetry, then jewelry and silver design, and worked for the interior designer Anthony Redmile. He even got married, though Ni Chianain doesn’t locate his ex, and there’s very little information about this period of his life.
One of his colleagues from the time suggests that MacGregor had a bad acid trip during a music festival on the Isle of Wight, and somehow that affected everything. Whatever it was, he abandoned a promising life and career without so much as a goodbye, and incongruously turned up on Inishbofin. There he met a local named Mary, and the two developed an intense bond that lasted until MacGregor’s sudden death from a heart attack at the age of 43, in 1990.
Thankfully, Ni Chianain isn’t looking for a moral, just understanding, though her subject remains a cipher. Peppering the story are re-creations with two actors (Edward and Chloe Humm), meant to add atmosphere, but instead they detract from the intrinsic honesty that seemed to be MacGregor’s driving force. Shots of his avatar wandering the island’s moors in galoshes add nothing to an appreciation of this man or his environment; nor do they make the story more “accessible.”
The island’s rugged beauty, shrouded in green-grays, provides some of the docu’s most rewarding moments, as handsomely captured by lenser Tristan Clamorgan. Archival elements from Super 8 and other formats help situate the period in which MacGregor blossomed, though it’s not always clear what’s generic footage and what’s specific to him.