Paul Mescal, so adorably huggable in lockdown hit Normal People, cuts a far more ambiguous figure in God’s Creatures, a brooding drama set in a remote corner of Ireland where secrets are as commonplace as fishing boats. Playing in Cannes as part of the Directors’ Fortnight strand, it’s a compelling feature debut from Brooklyn-based co-directors Saela Davis and Anna Rose Holmer, albeit one that comes with enough slimy fish guts to turn the most ardent pescatarian’s stomach.
As the main supervisor of the seafood factory that is this windswept village’s chief employer, Aileen (Emily Watson) can at least keep her hands clean when she goes to work. Some stains, though, prove tougher to wash off, the return of her son Brian (Mescal) from an extended stay in Australia only serving to reawaken old tensions and long-dormant resentments.
Brian, who has returned to Ireland after seven years to revive his grandfather’s defunct oyster farm, is a charmer who sees every girl in town as a potential conquest. When one of his mum’s co-workers (Aisling Franciosi) accuses him of assaulting her, though, Aileen feels duty-bound to cover up for him – a fateful decision that obliges everyone else in her close-knit community to reluctantly pick a side.
Working from a script Shane Crowley adapted from a story he co-wrote with producer Fodhla Cronin O’Reilly, Davis and Holmer do a fine job unpicking the web of lies, loyalties, and blind spots that underpins life in this remote coastal enclave. (Here the fisherman deliberately do not learn how to swim, lest they be called upon to risk their lives for their fellow sailors.) Director of Photopgraphy Chayse Irvin, meanwhile, ensures the action unfolds in a perpetual gloomy half-light, creating the impression that even the sun has no time for this benighted corner of the world.
Ultimately, though, it’s the performances that you’ll leave remembering. Watson, largely silent, deftly conveys her conflicted matriarch’s pent-up anguish and escalating dismay, while Mescal conveys a subtle and insinuating menace that will surprise his legion of TV fans.
Franciosi, meanwhile, is simply riveting, her angelic features hardening into a righteous fury as the doors and mouths of her neighbors begin to close around her. She has the voice of an angel too, delivering a haunting solo ballad during one of the melancholy funeral wakes which punctuate the narrative.
After a gripping and simmering build-up, it’s a little disappointing that Davis and Holmer can’t quite deliver the climactic emotional punch the story demands. The lengthy final shot, however, is certainly one to cherish, its extended study of a certain character’s features as they drive out of town giving this critic the same feels he got watching Bob Hoskins’ majestic departure at the end of The Long Good Friday.
God’s Creatures does not have a US or UK release date. Stick with Total Film for all the latest coverage from Cannes 2022 – check out our review of the festival’s opening movie, Final Cut, through that link.
4 out of 5
God’s Creatures review, Cannes: “Brooding drama set in a corner of Ireland the sun has no time for”
Atlantic cod and oyster beds provide a pungent backdrop for this effective fillet of atmospheric psychological drama.