In “Rialto,” the sensitive if constrained sophomore feature from Peter Mackie Burns (“Daphne”), diffident Dubliner Colm (Tom Vaughn-Lawlor) apologizes a lot. When he bumps into someone. When someone bumps into him. When he answers the phone or forgets a household task or mishears his wife. All those little excuses are partly the accurate observation of an authentically Irish verbal tic, as detailed in Mark O’Halloran’s cleverly colloquial screenplay, based on his own stage play. But there is also the sense that Colm’s frequent exhalations of apology are flak cannon fire, sent up into the ether to disguise and distract from an enormous, deeply repressed guilt that there’s no “sorry” large enough to cover. “Rialto” pivots claustrophobically around a crisis moment that drives Colm to act on the very desires he has perhaps been apologizing for all along.

It is a comfortably-off family man, working in a low-level managerial position in Dublin’s docks, to whom we are initially introduced, a short while after the death of his abusive, alcoholic father. His understanding wife Claire (Monica Dolan) is quietly supportive even when Colm’s grief and confusion cause him to retreat from her, and if his relationship with his surly teenage son Shane (Scott Graham) is strained, his warmer one with daughter Kerry (Sophie Jo Wasson) somewhat compensates. But the destabilizing effect of his father’s passing goes deeper than his family can know, driving Colm to start an illicit affair with young hustler Jay (Tom Glynn-Carney), with the viciousness of their initial encounter — during which Jay essentially mugs Colm and blackmails him thereafter — only serving to add a further frisson of transgressive attraction. When Colm is also made redundant from the job that has defined him for 30 years, it is in Jay’s mercurial, money-motivated affections that he seeks solace.

This sort of painfully close-up portrait always lives or dies on the quality of the performances and Vaughn-Lawlor’s absolute immersion in his psychologically complex, difficult, and often deeply unlikable character is remarkable, while Glynn-Carney brings an electric zing of menace to the cocky, unpredictable, opportunistic Jay. As the story ticks minutely through the few days and weeks leading up to Colm’s father’s “month’s mind” (a Catholic ritual of observation that happens a month after a death), the uneasy energy between the two reveals them each to be, in many ways, the inverse of the other: Colm outwardly pliant but pursuing a destructive relationship with boundary-crossing zeal, jeopardizing his family life, while Jay’s grasping, volatile, hard-man exterior conceals a touching wellspring of protective affection for his own new-born daughter. But while the film’s refusal to judge Colm for his actions is admirable, it does mean that his wife and family become so much collateral damage to his painful process of self-revelation; we could wish, perhaps, that Claire’s interior life or Shane’s teenagerly scorn were given a little more dimension than “Rialto’s” laser focus on Colm allows them.

But then, that is perhaps a factor of the film’s stage origins — a provenance which despite the title (Rialto is an old working-class area of Dublin in which Colm’s mother lives) and the street-level locations, the film never really overcomes. With DP Adam Scarth’s unshowy photography usually magnetized to mid-shots and closeups of Colm, we get little sense of the city, the society, the world around him, and how he interacts with it, especially given the only glancing characterization of the supporting roles.

In a film more overtly stylized that could play to advantage, keeping us trapped in impressionistic proximity to Colm’s fraying, frequently inebriated state of mind, but the resolutely realist register means instead it translates to a slight airlessness, as though the story were insulated against the chaotic forces of the wider world. And with an ending that is carefully calibrated to remain ambivalent and unresolved, “Rialto” builds an intimate portrait of masculine crisis, illuminated by two extraordinary central performances, but stops just short of converting all that insight into truly powerful cinema. As harmful and painful as Colm’s gradual transformation is, it is at the very least an act of bravery that he finally goes after what he wants outside the constraints of the conventional life he’s built for himself, and it leaves one wishing Burns’ film, as scrupulously honest, heartfelt and exceptionally well-acted as it is, took some similar risks.

Venice Film Review: ‘Rialto’

Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (Horizons), Sept. 1, 2019. Running time: 90 MIN.

  • Production: (Ireland-U.K.) A Cowtown Pictures, The Bureau production. (Int'l sales: The Bureau Sales, Paris.) Producers: Alan Maher: John Wallace, Tristan Goligher, Valentina Brazzini.
  • Crew: Director: Peter Mackie Burns. Screenplay: Mark O'Halloran, based on his stage play "Trade." Camera (color, widescreen): Adam Scarth. Editor: Tim Fulford.
  • With: Tom Vaughn-Lawlor, Tom Glynn-Carney, Monical Dolan, Sophie Jo Wasson, Scott Graham, Michael Smiley, Deirdre Donnelly, Eileen Walsh, Deirdre Molloy.