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I Could Read the Sky

Despite being destined only for specialist events and cultural webs, shortsmaker and storyboard artist Nichola Bruce's first feature, "I Could Read the Sky," is an impressive slice of borderline avant-garde cinema, visualizing the memories, regrets and dreams of an aged Irishman dying in London. Sophisticated tech work, mixing film and transferred video, is a major plus in maintaining audience attention.

Despite being destined only for specialist events and cultural webs, shortsmaker and storyboard artist Nichola Bruce’s first feature, “I Could Read the Sky,” is an impressive slice of borderline avant-garde cinema, visualizing the memories, regrets and dreams of an aged Irishman dying in London. Sophisticated tech work, mixing film and transferred video, is a major plus in maintaining audience attention.

An unnamed Irish man (Dermot Healy), all sandy-white hair and straggly beard, sits rotting in a dingy, single-room apartment in London. Mostly heard in voiceover, but occasionally spoken direct to camera, his meandering, semi-poetic reminiscences of growing up on the west coast of Ireland and then moving round England as a declasse laborer are mirrored by abstract imagery and brief dialogue scenes featuring people from his past.

Though the film, based on an award-winning book, digs deep into the fatalistic melancholy at the heart of the Irish soul, it steers resolutely clear of history, politics and Anglo-Celtic differences. It’s more a remembrance of things lost, an expatriate’s free-form diary. Juxtaposing words and imagery, pic essentially falls into a category of Channel Four/British Film Institute–supported Brit cinema by directors like Tony Harrison (“Prometheus”) and Patrick Keiller (“London”), though more dreamlike and free-flowing, and eschewing their social/political observation.

Film has no narrative, more a long emotional arc, starting with a batch of memories from which the old man summons first family and friends, dispersed by poverty, then a measure of hope and, finally, some kind of contentment (“In the morning light, I let it go”). Figure of his late wife, Maggie (Maria Doyle Kennedy), runs through the film as an emotional anchor. Stephen Rea pops up in a puzzling cameo.

Healy is first-rate as the man with only death to look forward to. Behind-camera talent includes ace d.p. Seamus McGarvey, smooth effects work that uses morphing and overlapping images, and a varied and flavorsome music soundtrack including Irish artists Sinead O’Connor and fiddle player Martin Hayes.

I Could Read the Sky

(DRAMA -- BRITISH-IRISH)

Production: An Arts Council of England/Irish Film Board/Channel Four/British Film Institute/Real World Records presentation, in association with Gemini Films and Spider Pictures, of a Hot Property Films production, in association with Liquid Pictures. (International sales: Gemini Films, Paris.) Produced by Janine Marmot. Executive producers, Roger Shannon, Paulo Branco, Ben Gibson. Co-producer, Nicholas O'Neill. Directed, written by Nichola Bruce, based on the photographic novel by Timothy O'Grady and Steve Pyke. Camera (Deluxe Color prints), Seamus McGarvey, Owen McPolin; editor, Catherine Creed; music, Iarla O'Lionaird; production designer, Jane Bruce; art directors, Janna Craze (U.K.), Jessica Coyle (Ireland); costume designer, Helen Kane; sound (Dolby), Cameron Hills; sound designer, Joakim Sundstrom. Reviewed at Edinburgh Film Festival (Focus on British Cinema), Aug. 21, 1999. (Also in Galway Film Festival; Montreal Film Festival --- Focus on Irish Cinema; Toronto Film Festival --- Discovery.) Running time: 84 MIN.

With: With: Dermot Healy, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Brendan Coyle, Stephen Rea, Jake Williams, Roy Larkin, Lisa O'Reilly, Rachel Pilkington.

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