Directors: Anna Rose Holmer, Saela Davis
Stars: Paul Mescal, Emily Watson, Aisling Franciosi
Tumultuous waters eddy and chop in this dour drama from the craggy coastland of Ireland; a far-flung locale from Anna Rose Holmer’s feted urban US debut The Fits, which was greeted with just praise some eight years back. Here Holmer teams up with newcomer Saela Davis for a muted investigation into normalised criminality in small close-knit towns, going round the houses a while before zeroing in on it’s particularly feminist indictments.
Recent Oscar nominee Paul Mescal might be the buzziest name in the cast, but his character Brian is the most elusive. Returning to the ceaselessly grim shores of the oyster fishing community where he was raised, Brian is welcomed with open arms by his doting mother Aileen (Emily Watson); herself a supervisory figure at the village’s modest factory. Favouring family often means looking the other way, or even outright aiding her son in picking up the family business again, while a bit of sly poaching on the side is met with similar leniency. Boys will be boys, after all. But Brian is a shady character who you wouldn’t want to give such licence. Taking other liberties with childhood best friend Sarah (Aisling Franciosi), Brian puts Aileen in a far thornier position, though she’s slow to realise it.
Slow is a watchword here especially in the film’s first hour, which emerges sodden from the waves as though weighted down with seaweed and sundry detritus. The drama opens with a body fished from the depths, and it can feel like God’s Creatures has been similarly beached. What follows plays out for the most part as a boilerplate example of working class toil and low-level hardship. While it broods effectively, these moods outstay their welcome as anything resembling a plot machination seems lost in the fog. The ambling itemising of petty crime and shit nights at the pub can urge a viewer’s mind to wander.
The tide turns, gradually. Chiefly we’re with Aileen as she undergoes a change in understanding; in her dear son and in herself. Watson is a bankable asset to any film and here she is as one might expect, all knitted brows and long stares that can chill. Good as she is (and flanked by Mescal’s understated casual villainy), the MVP of the piece may well be Franciosi playing the victim ostracised by the community for daring to speak her truth. This is (at least) the second time Franciosi has had to play such a character after her astonishing lead turn for Jennifer Kent in the onslaught that was The Nightingale. She finds a very different temperament here and quietly steals a number of the film’s best scenes.
Some of the small moments speak volumes, particularly in connection to elderly withering patriarch Paddy (Lalor Roddy). Though he mainly seems away with the fairies, a sudden strike against Aileen lands without reprisal, speaking of an assimilated brand of domestic violence. Then, later, Brian manages to rouse an old folk song from the decaying ghoul, furthering an almost mystic sense of commune between the two men. Divided by an hour, these scenes feel connected. Holmer and Davis condemn unchallenged institutionalised male brutality. Paddy’s swift decline then represents a dark omen for Brian.
Come the end, God’s Creatures leans a touch awkwardly on convenience, using a contrivance set up in the film’s earliest sequences to whip around to a neat conclusion. It’s a little too tidy a way to solve it’s problems, and it lowkey undercuts all that bedded-in social realism. Still, these moves engender the most engaging stretch. Might we think of God’s Creatures, ultimately, as a rape-revenge film? Subdued. Non-conformist. But similarly plotted.
Given that we’ve been with Aileen for the majority of the picture, it feels like a curious move when the baton is passed from her to Sarah to close it out. Coming from a close-knit coastal town myself, it is somewhat refreshing to see the romanticism resolutely wiped away. The motivations of the creatives here are clearly admirable. Driving out of the town for seemingly the first time, Sarah is afforded the first clear sky of the movie. Holmer and Davis hold on this longingly. It’s like a positive inversion of Lily Gladstone driving out of town in Certain Women. Escape can feel like victory, and that morning sunshine equates to Sarah freeing herself, finally, from the mire.