Playwright and occasional actor Conor McPherson’s debut as film director, “Saltwater,” is a modestly scaled production about the problems facing members of an Irish-Italian family. Not all of the material in McPherson’s screenplay is fully realized, but there’s enough humor, with a couple of outright belly laughs , to keep audiences, especially male audiences, happy. Pic could have modest theatrical success in Ireland and the U.K., and possibly elsewhere, but its real home is the small screen.
McPherson’s plays, including the successful “The Weir,” and his amiable screenplay for Paddy Breathnach’s “I Went Down,” in which he also played a role, have established him as one of Ireland’s hottest writers. For his first foray into film direction he has played it relatively safe, but his inexperience as a storyteller on film is apparent in the opening scenes, which awkwardly introduce the principal characters.
Recently widowed George Beneventi (Brian Cox) runs a fish-and-chip shop in a small coastal town. His elder son, Frank (Peter McDonald), helps in the shop; kid brother Joe (Laurence Kinlan) attends school and their older sister, Carmel (Valerie Spelman) — whose character remains undeveloped — is involved with the womanizing Ray (Conor Mullen), who teaches philosophy at the university and who can’t keep his hands off his students.
It’s off-season, and the cafe isn’t getting many customers, so George is struggling to repay the enormous debt he owes to bookmaker “Simple” Simon McCurdie (Brendan Gleeson.) Frank is furious with his father for being beholden to the charming but ruthless McCurdie. Frank decides to rob McCurdie’s establishment, which he does inexpertly but with surprising success. His getaway is one of the film’s more amusing moments.
Joe befriends Damien (David O’Rourke), a new boy at school, but soon discovers his pal has dangerous antisocial tendencies; it’s an instant maturing experience for Joe.
Pic, which is divided into seven chapters named after the days of the week, covers a lot of territory but still is on the slight side. There’s the impression that McPherson has tried to pack rather too much into his first feature, and he might, in hindsight, have benefited from concentrating on one or two of the strands. As it is, some elements remain unexplained, such as the apparent dream Joe repeatedly has, which consists of a barely glimpsed woman (his dead mother?) seen on overexposed, scratchy film.
Female characters are consistently underdeveloped in this male-oriented pic. Little information is provided about Carmel, and short shrift is given to the characters of the female cop (Gina Moxley) attracted to Frank and to Deborah (Eva Birthistle), the student with whom Ray is involved.
The ensemble cast performs well under McPherson’s direction, especially McDonald as the frustrated Frank. Gleeson contributes sly humor to the marginal character of the bookmaker.
Technical credits are all modest, but adequately fulfill the demands of this small-scale production.