Anchored by a riveting performance from Brendan Gleeson, “Sweety Barrett” is a strange, intriguing morality tale that is as original as it is emotionally satisfying. First-time helmer Stephen Bradley skillfully builds the drama in this adult fable about a simple man stuck in a corrupt Irish town. Only downside is a key plot development in the last half-hour that feels contrived and detracts from pic’s power. The languid pace will not help the film’s commercial prospects, but the standout turn from hot Irish thesp Gleeson (“The General”) and the accessible appeal of this evocative story should stir up some theatrical interest.
Sweety Barrett (Gleeson) has just lost his traveling-circus job of swallowing various objects. He meets a bootlegger, Flick Hennessy (Tony Rohr), who sets him up in a hostel in the fictional port town of Dockery and hires him to do odd jobs.
When Sweety meets Anne King (Lynda Steadman) and her 6-year-old son Conor (Dylan Murphy), the huge man, who has the intellectual development of a grade-schooler, immediately hits it off with the young boy.
In short order, life becomes a lot more complicated for Sweety. First, the town is at the mercy of the demented police chief, Mannix Bone (Liam Cunningham) , who has framed Anne’s husband, Leo (Andy Serkis), routinely beats up citizens for no reason and has forced Flick to make him a full partner in the whiskey-running biz. Sweety and the bad detective are clearly on a collision course.
When Leo gets out of jail, he quickly squeezes Sweety out of the family scene. Leo is also set to have it out with Bone. All the conflicts come to a bloody head following a tragic accident.
Overall, Bradley successfully balances the story’s gritty naturalism and its poetic elements, missing the mark only in a crucial plot twist toward the end. Helmer creates an almost magical landscape that highlights yarn’s mysterious side.
The atmosphere is heightened by seasoned German d.p. Thomas Mauch’s lensing, which emphasizes the barren beauty of the town and surrounding area. In particular, there is a surreal quality to the docks, where much of the action takes place. Many images are haunting, from an early shot showing the title character asleep among a herd of sheep to the dark sequences in the grotty seaside tavern.
The film is virtually held together by Gleeson, who delivers an impressive, unsentimental performance as a simple, illiterate man with a big heart. Cunningham just oozes psychopathic maliciousness as Bone, Steadman is down-to-earth and endearing as Anna, and newcomer Murphy exudes natural charm as the boy.
Tech credits are fine, though Stephen McKeon’s score tends to lay it on a bit thick.