Review: Dark Horse

Dark Horse

Trailer

He's not actually that dark is he?

He’s not actually that dark is he?

It was documentary time at JDIFF, as myself and the better half went down to the Lighthouse to check out this British offering. It was her pick actually, out of a desire to see something positive and uplifting, not that I was complaining. I lack any real interest in the sport of horse racing, despite my father’s obsession, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate both a good sports movie, and a good underdog story. I caught a screen of Dark Horse at the Jameson International Film Festival.

A barmaid in a small Welsh mining town decides to try and execute an unlikely ambition: to fundraise enough money from the local community to breed and train a racehorse. Eventually named “Dream Alliance” the horse, raised in an allotment and scraping for everything it gets, shocks the racing world when he gets entered into events – and starts winning.

There is something very charming about how Dark Horse presents itself. When it comes to sports films, the prime maxim I always hold to is always that the best examples aren’t actually about a sport at all, they just use sport as a point to position a much more wide ranging story around. In the last two years, 2013’s Rush, about motor racing, has shown a story about opposing drives to win, motivation and the important of rivalry as a pusher to greatness, while last year’s Next Goal Wins, nominally about association football, was really about individual self-respect and the search for nationalist feeling for an entity that was barely a nation.

So, what is the story within the story for Dark Horse? It’s one of a poor, down-on-its-luck Welsh village, punished by a humdrum mining existence and the oppressions of the Thatcher years, suddenly deciding that it isn’t going to sit there and take it anymore.

Or at least, it tries to be. There is an attempt, from director Louise Osmond, to craft this sort of grander narrative about Dark Horse, with an established higher class, used to the pomp and ceremony of horseracing, looking down with sneers on the little people trying to bust into their sport, only to be left red-faced when the allotment-raised animal actually wins a few races. But it’s a stretched premise, one that never really managed to entrench itself in my mind. In the end, the syndicate surrounding Dream Alliance is not the entire village, horse racing isn’t nearly the sort of elitist thing that it is made out to be (I mean, it costs to take part, but let’s not pretend it’s just royalty and millionaires anymore), and Dream Alliance, while going far beyond what could possibly have been expected of him, still sort of flounders around for much of his career. The tagline of the film purports it to be an “incredible true story”, but that might be a bit of hyperbole. And the film never really acknowledges the fact that this community initiative provided the capital, but it was professional care and training that made Dream Alliance the winner he became. He grows up on an allotment, but he didn’t stay there.

The upshot is supposed to be the tremendous boost in self-esteem it gives the syndicate members, a diverse cast of characters to be sure: they feature the barmaid who takes (what she considers to be) the demeaning job of a cleaner at a local supermarket to help pay for her obsession, her gap-toothed accent blessed husband, the guy who lost it all on horses before but is back for more punishment, and the older guy who wants to bring his own cans to the track bar and won’t have it any other way.

It’s a sort of a cute assortment of people, but you still don’t really feel the message that Osmond is trying to send out as well as maybe he wants to. In the case of Jan Vokes, the barmaid, sure, you can definitely sense the happiness and fulfilment she got from Dream Alliance, but for the rest of them, it just sort of seems more like a bit of fun that went to an unexpected place, as opposed to a crucial journey in altering their self-perception.

Lacking that kind of pivotal element to mark it out, Dark Horse never really threatens to break into the realm of truly great sports movie, or even great horse racing movies. But that is not to say that it is a wasted effort. There are still lots of interesting insights to be gained about horse racing, especially since this is a story that begins right at the roots with the breeding of two horses to make a (hopefully) serviceable and competitive animal. Here you can learn about how the breeding process goes forward, in terms of both practicality and cost, the registration of a new animal, the incredibly pricey nature of its care, training and, eventually, its competition, the nature of how success or failure determines future potential, the travails of injury to equines and how relatively inexperienced people can still make some headway into a sport that costs a great deal of time, money and effort to be dedicated to. In all of that, Dark Horse at least manages to justify itself as a descriptive documentary, telling you about something you might not have known the topic at hand, while not really doing anything on the other side of things, that of investigation, or shining light on an undeveloped or unknown aspect of the topic at hand.

The heartstrings get a liberal tugging in Dark Horse, but in sort of a good way. The security camera footage of Dream Alliance being born and then taking his first steps was a strange delight to behold – a dream literally coming to fruition – as were the underdog elements that came into play later, as the OAP and unemployed denizens of this community scheme suddenly wind up having a horse in the Grand National. You do get a decent understanding of why people get so emotionally invested in the sport of horse racing, and a late scene of a trainer breaking down into tears at the memory of Dream Alliance’s grander moments comes across as endearing rather than sappy.

But Dark Horse has its problems. It’s a little bit too long, that breed (ha!) of documentary that feels obliged to hit 90+ minutes despite a paucity of material to really make that running time something to aim for. Maybe it’s just the “rise and fall and rise and fall” nature of the narrative, where Dark Horse feels like it’s trying hard to make a story that could be told in a very short space of time into something much more epic. The second half especially just sort of trundles along, not without its bits of decent storytelling, but you aren’t sad to see the end credits roll when they do finally appear. Maybe that feeling could have been alleviated with a bit more of flair in the direction, which remains rather unimaginative throughout the course of Dark Horse, with a few rather drab docudrama scenes inserted which sort of take you out of the story more than they pull you in. It’s only with pre-existing footage – like the aforementioned feed of Dream Alliance coming into the world – or the glimpses at the villages more booming industrial past, that you really become engaged with the film visually.

Still, Dark Horse is a very positive, upbeat production, and that is nothing to sniff at. It’s a joyful story, which manages to conjure up a happy ending for its main character despite a variety of obstacles in his career that could have ended (literally) another animal. Sometimes it’s nice to just take in a film where the little guy and the, well, dark horse, actually come through and find some success. It won’t embed itself into the popular consciousness the same way something like Seabiscuit or Champions did, but it is good as an amusing and heart-warming distraction. On those grounds, recommended.

Entertaining, but forgettable.

Entertaining, but forgettable.

(All images are copyright of Film4).

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Ireland’s Wars: The Williamite Advance

In the summer of 1690, the Jacobites were on the run nearly everywhere in Ireland. The loss at the Boyne and the subsequent flight of James II from the country had been twin blows that the Jacobite war effort tottered under, but the aftermath was arguably just as bad. After William took bloodless control of Dublin and reorganised things there to his satisfaction, he took command of his army once more. The tendril he sent due west to take Athlone failed to fulfil their mission, but the rest of the Williamite army was having more success to the south.

As previously discussed, William aimed to take a leisurely enough route towards the Jacobite stronghold at Limerick, sweeping through the southern parts of Leinster and Munster on his way. The Jacobite army had been left dismembered in the aftermath of the Boyne, as many regiments dissolved and headed west to wait out the storm, others headed straight to Limerick and other smaller units being left in isolated garrisons, garrisons that were now directly in the path of the oncoming Williamites. Dealing with these isolated garrisons would give William greater control over Ireland, secure his supply lines as he moved on the major Jacobite heartland and solidify Williamite control over the coastline, preventing any future French reinforcements from landing.

William departed Dublin on the 9th of July, heading first into County Kildare, coming to a brief stop at Castledermot. His march, and the march of any detachments, would be marked by careful movement with the use of units to guard the flanks of the larger force, to guard against rapparee attacks, which were a never-ending danger. These bands and units of Jacobite cavalry would wait in the vicinity, seeking to pick off stragglers or wayward units of Williamites. A few times such ambushes proved quite successful: a small party of raiders was badly mauled and sent running by Jacobite cavalry after an encounter near Callan, Kilkenny, when the Williamites had been trying to seize herds of cattle. All along the line of the Williamite march there were reports of unauthorised plundering and rapine, with numerous instances of soldiers being hanged for the crime. William wanted to pacify the Irish without resort to overly-stringent measures, but he couldn’t keep full control of his massive army.

From Kildare he sent out another, smaller, detachment, under a Colonel William Eppinger, of around a thousand or so men, to head directly south and pacify the county of Wexford. Eppinger duly did so, and met with little resistance, occupying an abandoned Wexford Town a few days later, allegedly finding a large amount of ammunition and supplies that could have been used to make a stout defence. As with Drogheda, the Williamites were one-upping Oliver Cromwell at every turn, the Parliamentarians capture of Wexford decades before being far bloodier. From Wexford Eppinger swung west towards Duncannon.

This was harder nut to crack, perhaps as hard as Athlone. I’ve discussed the defensive strengths and possibilities of Duncannon several times before, the fort being one of the only places to successfully resist Cromwell during his time in Ireland, and proving itself to be one of the most formidable fortifications in all of Ireland throughout its history. Eppinger was handed what seemed, on paper, to be an impossible task: to capture this immensely strong position with barely a thousand men and precious little artillery.

But capture it he did. Its Jacobite commander, a Michel Burke, pled the excuse of provisions and their scarcity, and I suppose there is little reason to doubt him. But then again, one might wonder why he had such scarcity of provisions, considering the war had not touched Wexford up to that point. The arrival of a Williamite fleet in the vicinity probably also influenced the decision, essentially cutting off the possibility of relief from the sea. Regardless, Duncannon was handed over, after an agreement was made for Burke, his men and their arms to be allowed to march to Limerick. The “siege” lasted only a short time, Duncannon surrendered on the 26th of July.

A major point on the Irish coastline secured for almost zero cost then, and William was just getting started. While Eppinger was undertaking his tasks, William had led the majority of his army to Carlow Town, and into Kilkenny, taking Kells (the other one) before arriving at the county town on the 19th of July. Here was another place that had given Cromwell pause, but again William lucked out: Kilkenny, once the capital of the Irish Confederates, lay open and abandoned, occupied bloodlessly by Williamite troops.

A pattern was now clear. The isolated garrisons were mostly local militia, as ill-trained and armed as the rest of the Jacobite army. They would have been terribly outnumbered by the oncoming forces, and would have lacked artillery to try and fight back against a siege. Faced with the choice between flight, surrender after a few days of token resistance, or fighting a battle against hopeless odds, many garrisons simply choose flight. A better organised nationwide effort, perhaps one that James should have organised when he had the chance, could have severely tested the Williamites in such circumstances, forcing them to fight a serious of sieges, to stay out on campaign longer than their supplies or the weather would hold, bleeding them dry with a death of a thousand cuts. But, instead, the bedraggled and desolate Jacobite military collapsed in a south west direction, with whomever was left behind forced to fend for themselves.

The occupation of Kilkenny, Wexford and Duncannon essentially delivered the south-east of Ireland into Williamite hands, and firmly established Williamite dominance over most of Leinster. From Kilkenny, William sent out another small detachment, under the younger (and now only) Schomburg, to tackle Clonmel, in Tipperary. The place had seen the bloodiest combat of the Eleven Year Wars, but now it lay open and undefended, Schomburg occupying it without loss, kick-starting the Williamite advance into Munster. William pressed on, decamping from Kilkenny and coming to the strategically vital position of Carrick-on-Suir within a few days. Here was another point where a co-ordinated resistance could have, at the very least, made the Williamites pay for a crossing of the Suir. But, again, the town fell bloodlessly.

From there William cast an eye on Waterford Town itself, the next in the series of ports on the south coast he had a mind to pacify. Another detachment, this time under General Kirke, travelled south to summon the Jacobite garrison. This time that garrison was sizable, with around two regiments of soldiers, but divisive arguments between the senior officers in the town essentially doomed its defence before it could start. After agreeing that the garrison could relocate without harm to Cork, Waterford was handed over to the Williamites too.

All was going William’s way, as the frontiers of Munster surrendered to him without any resistance, the road to Limerick and what was left of the more substantial Jacobite army left wide open. It had the look of a disastrous cascade of Williamite victories, and any cotemporary observer could be forgiven for thinking that Irish resistance towards William’s rule would be completely finished before the year was out.

But things would not turn out that way. For one thing, Athlone to the north refused to follow the established Williamite pattern, and its successful resistance was a sign that, with the right conditions and the right leaders, the Jacobites could make an effective stand. For another, William would soon find out that Limerick would prove no easy conquest.

And the King was also soon distracted by news from abroad. It must be remembered that Ireland was just one theatre of operations in a European wide war that William was fighting against the forces of France, and he had navies and armies that he had to keep track of in many places. Just after the capture of Waterford, William received the terrible news of a major French victory over his navy at the Battle of Beachy Head. The battle had actually been fought just before the Boyne, but it took that long for news to get to William in the field. Arthur Herbert, he who had commanded the British ships at Bantry Bay earlier in the war, was roundly defeated by the Comte de Tourville, a result that gave the French uncontested control of the English Channel for a period of time. In the end, the French did not make any proper use of this advantage at all, but there was a brief time when a French invasion of England was feared at any moment.

The news put William in a spin: he left command of his army and headed straight back in the direction of Dublin, where he could get a better handle on things and even head back over the sea if he had to. Eventually, after getting better news from England, William regained control of his nerve and returned to rejoin his army on its approach to Limerick, but the episode is an example of how changeable both the general situation, and William’s mood, was.

As it was, a few weeks of campaigning had delivered nearly all of Leinster and parts of Munster into William’s hands, and for a very negligible cost. The Jacobites looked beaten in every department, and it remained only for the last great push to be executed, against the remaining Jacobite strongholds on the Shannon, and beyond.

But, as the Williamites were soon to find out, the Jacobites were far from beaten. And, with the right commander, they were still capable of enacting some very nasty surprises.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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Review – Gett: The Trial Of Viviane Amsalem

Gett: The Trial Of Viviane Amsalem

Trailer

A marriage divided, a woman on trial and an entire legal system under the spotlight.

A marriage divided, a woman on trial and an entire legal system under the spotlight.

JDIFF strikes again! The last entry wasn’t all that great, but I had latched on early to the following film, that received critical acclaim from all quarters (RT: 100% from 51 reviews!) since its initial release. It wasn’t actually until after the showing that I found out that Gett is the third film in a trilogy about the title character, from co-director/lead actress Ronit Elkabetz, which has generally wowed audiences in Israel and has made a significant impact on the festival circuit elsewhere. A divorce drama with a minimalist approach, Gett aimed to tell a very personal story in very cramped conditions, a stage-play feel for a big screen offering. I caught a screening of Gett at the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival.

Viviane Amsalem (Elkabetz) goes to a rabbinical court in Israel, seeking an end to her dysfunctional marriage with Elisha (Simon Ebkarian). But in Israel, divorce can only be granted with the husband’s consent, and Elisha is far from consenting.  Over several torturous years, and with the legal help of Carmel Ben Tovin (Menashe Noy), Vivian confronts ambiguously minded judges, religious intolerance to her plight, and the unyielding nature of her husband.

Last Friday, I reviewed a “film” that could be classified as “minimalist”, in so far as it had a tiny budget and did very little in terms of visuals. But it actually went too far, with the entirety of its visuals being recycled, and the new material added ultimately being of little consequence.

But minimalist can be done right, as Gett shows. You can have a small cast, a very tiny amount of places to shoot – I would say 95% of Gett is filmed in a single bare looking room – and, presumably, a small budget. But with those limitations, you can still make something worth watching. The key’s, as there are in anything in cinema , remain a good script, good visual direction and good performances. And Gett, along with its limited filming locations, cast members and production details, has all of that in spades.

This is part three of three, but there’s no real need to have seen the first two – 2004’s VeLakahta Lekha Isha (To Take A Wife) and 2008’s Shiva (7 Days) – really. Gett sets things up quickly and plainly from its opening moments, presenting Viviane, a torn housewife who wants her union with Elisha to be over. We’ll find out why as things go along, with oblique references to the previous two films, but it’s enough to be going on with. We can, from the opening frames, see a story about a woman in pain, and we don’t need two additional films of back-story to find out why. Gett is, I think, primarily a story about a woman in pain, pain caused by the refusal of a simple wish that she no longer be chained to a man she has long since ceased to love, or to have much of an attachment to at all.

But the primary conflict of the film is not really between Viviane and Elisha. He’s a passive, mostly silent character, who spends most of the film saying nothing at all. The true conflict of the film is between Viviane’s desire for a get (Hebrew for “divorce” apparently) and the religious orthodoxy that governs the system of deciding whether she gets one or not. It would be almost farcical if the reality wasn’t so true: time and again, from opening scenes all the way to the films powerful climax, Viviane finds her way barred by a legal system that openly places the desires of the husband over the desires of a wife, even in something as fundamentally union destroying as a quest to obtain a divorce. The system is personified by the three stern judges who “try” the case, and whose desires and motivations are thinly veiled attempts to get the status quo continuing and a bothersome woman back where she belongs. Gett is about Viviane’s emotional turmoil, a turmoil caused less by a cold silent husband, and more by a legal system that places her on a lower standing than the man she is trying to escape.

The resulting trial is about Viviane, and casts a harsh spotlight on an Israeli society – at least in the 1990’s, as depicted here – a society that judges her harshly for even trying to get a divorce, and judges her even more strongly for resisting the many efforts to get her to stop. A cavalcade of witnesses are brought in to the tiny courtroom to try and get the matter settled, most of them framing their viewpoints through a lens of resisting any sundering of marriage, and of treating Viviane’s issue, at best, with a sort of detached bemusement in their eyes. Only a small number of people seem to understand the kind of pressure Viviane is under, supporting her cause, and Gett makes clear that the seeking of a divorce is an act that puts every aspect of your life, as seen through the eyes of your family, friends and neighbours, under an unrelenting spotlight.  But the end result, for the audience anyway, is to paint a picture of a society acting in a warped and dangerous fashion, sexist in its thinking and unjust in its actions.

Viviane is largely silent in the prosecution of her cause, and not by choice. Her thoughts on the matter are almost immaterial. If it wasn’t for the fact that this is how the courts actually seem to work in Israel, I’d almost call it far-fetched. But the greatness in Gett is in how, aside from the odd outburst and interruption, Viviane grows as a character within our eyes. She starts off as a pleading supplicant. Over time, she transforms into something else, losing the more modest, drab clothing and sorrowful demeanour, later dressed more provocatively (by Jewish standards anyway), more scathing in her look, actions and voice, becoming more and more defiant even as she continues to be discounted as a player with agency in this fight.

Ronit Elkabetz dominates proceedings, in front of and behind the camera.

Ronit Elkabetz dominates proceedings, in front of and behind the camera.

The pressure builds and builds, and with very little material – Viviane really doesn’t get to talk all that much, but when she does, every word has a power – a well-crafted character takes shape, one that carries the audiences full sympathies. She’s a strong female character trying to make the very best of a situation and a system that is denying her so much, but it is in the way that she carries herself – with grace, and then defiance later – that really makes her stand out to me. Other women in Gett are different: more brash or more subservient. Viviane is in the middle, but even she can’t stop the dam from bursting eventually, and her tear filled explosion of pain in the film’s final act is the pivotal moment when she becomes one of the year’s best female characters, someone who is restrained for as long as she can, but still has a realistic and believable breaking point.

On the other side of the courtroom is Elisha. Throughout the vast majority of Gett, he remains an infuriating enigma, a man who stubbornly refuses to engage the matter at hand at all. Refusing to attend the court, speaking monosyllabically when he does, and utterly unwilling to contemplate the granting of a divorce to his suffering wife. His silence is a frustration because we are longing to discover why: why hold on to her when she so clearly cannot stand him anymore? Why perpetrate a sham of a marriage, where even when Viviane is ordered back into his home he ignores her? Is it religious conviction? Is it genuine love that he can’t bring himself to emote properly? Can he not bear the thought of losing face in his wider community? Or it is a terrible malevolence, a revenge trip that would make him among the most awful of people? Elisha keeps us guessing for most of Gett, his continuing refusal to bend in any way almost reaching comical levels by the time the film is nearing its end. I wouldn’t say Elisha is a really great character, but that guessing game at least keeps the audience engaged by him. The final revelation is complex and somewhat understandable, given what we know about Elisha, and is worth waiting for.

Gett balances the marriage drama with the other courtroom players. The opposing lawyers have a constant, and frequently ill-natured, back-and-forth, with Elisha’s advocate an sneering and enraging sort, willing to slime Viviane even as he takes full advantage of a manufactured aura of quaintness (one cannot help but think of Nancy Crozier in The Good Wife) and who pokes at open wounds with a barely reserved glee. On the other side is Tovin, one of the most decent men in the courtroom it seems, and the only one who seems to actually understand the injustice that is being perpetrated, treating the justices with a contempt he does not really try all that hard to conceal (I suppose he’s Will Gardner from The Good Wife then). But he too has his secrets, that make him more well-rounded than the angry paragon we are initially presented with.

All throughout is the interaction with the judges, character who swing between deadly serious patriarch types to comic relief, almost nameless but sort of captivating at the same turn, who seem happy to indulge Elisha in his constant delaying, and squirm when caught trying to undermine their own promises. Their roles are odd ones, mere referee’s for the unfolding drama, as no matter what threats they levy at Elisha, they cannot actually force him to grant his wife a divorce. They become symbols then, of a religious legal system entirely at ease with its own lack of potency in the issues of marriage disputes, unable to keep any sort of control over the people in their courtroom.

Gett is a strange one in terms of pacing and drive. Over and over again we are treated to the same scene, of Viviane and her lawyer asking the court to treat an absent husband more harshly, and again and again we are treated to a caption of “X Months Later”, the drama eventually stretching to years of courtroom episodes, of delays and missing figures of importance. It would be easy for the viewer to become fed-up by all of that, of getting impatient for something to actually happen, with some of the people I watched Gett with actually laughing when the caption kept coming up and up.

But, in a very weird way, this constant stringing out of the issue actually makes Gett more compelling: Always when we return to Viviane, months after her last date in court, we join her in the mounting frustration, the sense of injustice and the anger that her quest is taking so long to reach any kind of end point, yay or nay. In that, the Elkabetz siblings behind the camera have managed to forge a bond between audience and subject that is positively rare to see, and in a very unexpected manner. We end up lining up behind Viviane not just because we think that any woman who wants a divorce should be able to get one, but because the manner in which she is denied is so abhorrent to progressive society.

All that being said, Gett also succeeds when it gets down to the nitty gritty, in its second act most of all. There, a wider cast of characters – brothers, sisters, neighbours, friends, lawyers and others – all get their time in front of the camera, to testify about the marriage being discussed, and about Viviane and Elisha generally. There are some stand-out people who appear only briefly, like Viviane’s annoyed sister-in-law, who has the titular character in peals of laughter after her bitter and sarcastic rant at the court, or the husband and wife pair from a few doors down, the kind of couple the Israeli legal system wants to exist, with a subservient wife kowtowing to an overbearing husbands on nearly all matters, so far removed from the person Viviane wants to be that the contrast couldn’t be more striking.

Gett moves along, between moments of utmost serious and unexpected interludes of effective comedy, when the ludicrous nature of the entire affair overflows in deadpan asides and snarky rejoinders. But it can never fully escape the darkness at the core, and Gett keeps its audience on tenterhooks right up to its conclusion. Can Elisha ever be swayed? Will Viviane get the freedom that she craves? Gett kept me entertained and engaged with these questions, with its finale a suitable ending in a drawn out legal saga of years. Lives and an entire nation are the judged here, not just a disintegrating marriage.

As stated, Ronit Alkabetz sort of owns this movie, and all in spite of her lack of words. She certainly has no lack of time though, the film pivoting around her character, usually seated quietly in a chair to the right of all the action, observing, calculating and occasionally throwing in a pithy comment or plea. Alkabetz goes through the ringer here, showcasing varying degrees of anger, sorrow, frustration and morbidity throughout the two hours, through subtle shifts in tone and outright demonstrations of fury. I suppose it is the quieter moments that are more impressive: her Viviane says so much without saying nothing at all with just a withering look, a hand to her mouth, or (see below) the way she shows off her feet.

Ebkarian is mostly silent, but still crafts a performance to make you seriously wonder about his Elisha.

Ebkarian is mostly silent, but still crafts a performance to make you seriously wonder about his Elisha.

Simon Ebkarian is similar in that he is getting little words to speak, albeit for very different reasons. His Elisha is a riddle of a character, flat-faced, regretful and revealing precious little whenever he has any kind of focus on him. But that doesn’t make his performance bad in any way, quite the opposite: Ebkarian gives Elisha everything that he needs to have so that the audience really see’s him the way the directors want you to, as this enigmatic figure whose drive and purpose seem so alien to us, but have a deep-seeded justification to them in the end.

Of the supporting players, it’s Noy who probably makes the biggest impression, a firebrand of a lawyer whose deeper feelings for his client complicate matters in the latter stages of the case, his evasion of the subject matched by the petty point scoring of Sasson Gabai on the opposite side. The numerous judges are also making an impression – Rami Danon, Ze’ev Revach and Eli Gorstein I think –  providing the stern looks and reapproving admonitions from the bench.

The cast all of their roles to play in the extremely limited surroundings, Gett at times looking more like a stage play than a film. The vast, vast majority of the running time takes place in a rather dingy looking white walled courtroom, lacking unblinded windows or any distinguishing marks. The atmosphere thus created is deliberately claustrophobic, and one cannot help but consider the setting to be akin to a jail cell for its title character. There might not be more than 10 or so camera angles used in this room, all of the matching up to someone’s viewpoint, giving Gett a first person feel at times and the Elkabetz siblings use them all glowingly.

The surroundings are so limiting that clever cinematography is a wasted venture: instead, static camera shots are used at all times save for very briefly at the end, letting the actors and their body movements do all of the work. And in that everything is focused directly at faces: the simple surrounds, the single colour clothing, it all forms a somewhat bland picture, but does make the audience pay greater attention to what is being said and how people are saying it, a lingering portrait shot of Viviane at the start of the final act evoking thoughts of a similar shot from Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave, where the focus is meant to show the tiny little details – the tremors, the ticks, the barely hidden signs of emotions – that this character is thinking of and feeling.

Only when Viviane starts to chaff under the expectations of how she should look does the visual side of things start to have more colour, and even then in a very limited sense. Late on, Viviane spends a moment looking out a window at the outside world in an antechamber of some kind, and the sight of sunlight, cars and people out walking seems strange and almost absurd to the audience, a timely reminder that despite all of the drama inside the courtroom, with its garish white almost making you strain your eyes, there is still life outside. The world has kept turning.

The Elkabetz’ script doesn’t seem to suffer at all from the travails of translation into English, and provides a really good shining point for the film as a whole. This is a film of emotional declarations made intermittently with standard courtroom dramas: hopes, fears, dreams and nightmares are all brought out in a succession of interrogations, crosses and breakdowns. Well rehearsed testimony is torn to pieces by either side, and the case takes on the image of a train wreck in motion, so far from the point of whether Viviane deserves a divorce that one wonders what the point of the proceedings is. The greater moments are those left aside for Viviane to string more than a few sentences together, as she enunciates her opinion that her husband hates her, and will not be satisfied until she is on knees pleading for a divorce. But others have plenty to work with it as well, stand out moments including the constantly barbed dialogue between the two opposing lawyers, the judges stern lectures on the nature of marriage and family, or even the many unexpected but effective moments of humour.

The judges are equal parts antagonistic and comical, stern authoritarians who struggle to keep control of their court.

The judges are equal parts antagonistic and comical, stern authoritarians who struggle to keep control of their court.

Some brief spoiler discussion follows.

-That moment when the judge tells his assistant to get Viviane some water, she refuses, and then she gets water anyway, was so simple yet so artfully done. Here is a woman who has such little control over her own life that she cannot even decline a simple offer like this without being completely ignored.

-That view of the outside comes at a very fateful moment in the trial, as things reach a head and a final resolution appears possible. I’m not lying when I say that seeing it was jarring to me, having been so successfully sucked into the narrative within the cramped closed windowed space of the courthouse. It seemed unreal, to be reminded that all parties would walk away into the sunshine, and that life would go on just as it always had. Is there some higher point about the nature of cinematic storytelling and the commitment of an audience being made there?

-Viviane breaks down when her husband comes the closest he has yet to granting her a divorce only to change his mind at almost the last possible moment, and it’s probably the film’s most searing scene: the sight of Viviane letting loose, the years of delays coming out in a torrid flow of screaming and pleas for her freedom to be granted, animal-like in their viciousness. She isn’t just saying it to her husband, but to the world at large, and gives a truth to her earlier words that Elisha would not be satisfied until she was in this current state.

Gett has a somewhat odd recurring look at Viviane’s feet throughout the trial, her change in footwear part of her general change in mood, the greater skin being show almost looking like a challenge to such an old-fashioned conventional court. It even dominates the final shots. Are we to see Viviane’s feet as a crucial part of the narrative? Are we to imagine them chained to her husband perhaps, but finally freed at the end?

-It was obvious, or maybe predictable, that Viviane’s advocate would be revealed to have deeper feelings for his client than he should have, despite all of his protestations to the contrary. It’s an awkward but interesting scene, severely clouding all that we think we know about this advocate up to then, as he protests far too loudly under the accusation. The plot point gets no resolution, which is perhaps as it should be, given the final deal between Viviane and Elisha.

-That final reveal, that Elisha is so wrapped up in his faith and the view of marriage that comes from it, that he needs a promise that Viviane will take up with no other men after him, was a fitting end to the larger mystery of his continuing refusal. It is at once a grand reason for refusing the divorce, and also extremely petty: but, for a man so dedicated to the finer points of his religion, and unwilling to bend in the face of the request from his wife, it did just all come together in my eyes.

-I have to say, aside from the lopsided nature of things that leaves men with far more power than women, the proceedings of a divorce in a Jewish court seem crazy to me. It isn’t just that a man must give his consent a divorce, but he has to actually hand the document over to the women, one part in an overly-elaborate and kooky ritual, that had more of a comical than solemn effect on myself and the audience I saw the film with.

-The film does leave you hanging on the final resolution, the last shots seeing Viviane enter the courtroom  to try and receive her “gett” again. It’s possible that Elisha really is the monster he is sometimes painted as, and will once again refuse. But I don’t personally think so. I think the deep-seeded concern he had about his wife’s fidelity – which he considers still as something to be promised to him, divorce or no divorce – being sorted, he will finally be able to let her go. I hope so anyway. Viviane is a winner I suppose, but really everyone is a victor, finally escaping to that briefly glimpsed outside world.

Spoilers end

Gett is a great little film, the kind of minimalist production that actually does a great service to the term. It has some really wonderfully created personalities to weave its narrative around, and through the right application of montage, humour, decent scriptwork and good performances, it manages to flip what could be a drab, frustrating story into something that the audience just can’t tear its eyes away from. A divorce court that turns into a larger trial of an innocent and unjustly denied woman, Gett showcases the problems and hypocrisies of marriage law in Israel, in its depiction of a scenario that is as real as they come.

And so we can say that Gett is smart and engaging as well as entertaining, and all from a set of ingredients that didn’t really seem like they could come together in that way if you looked at them from a distance. The Kafkaesque bureaucratic chaos that it exhibits is the true stuff of nightmares, and makes you truly appreciative you don’t have to live under such a system. And this vision is brought before us with care and panache, by a sibling team that make sure that every shot and cut does what it is required to do, in terms of putting out a message or telling us something about the principals in the frame. This is certainly one to check out if you should get the chance, and was certainly one of the better offerings at this year’s JDIFF. Fully recommended.

A really compelling film.

A really compelling and well put together film.

(All images are copyright of Music Box Films).

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Same-Sex Marriage Referendum: 40 Days Out

“Spare a thought for the beleaguered bakers and the offended florists” Jennifer O’Connell begins in her Irish Times piece, on how the debate on SSM has rapidly been hijacked by a grander question on the extent of people’s right to be intolerant. It’s been an incredibly irritating sideshow to have to wade through really, as elements of the service industry become front and centre of the campaign, as opposed to the actual people seeking to get married legally. I have a very dim view of this “I have the right to my opinion” excuse making when it comes to denying service to people on the basis of their sexual orientation. I firmly believe that people have the right to be intolerant, but I do not believe that you have the right to deny services to others because you are intolerant of them. Are we so far gone from the days of “NINA” that we forget?

When your intolerance crosses that line to a tangible attempt to treat other human beings as less than you are, that is when I can no longer support such a “freedom”, anymore than, as I previously discussed, I would be willing to support the right of a Muslim petrol station to refuse to service female customers.

The easy comeback is “Well then why should a LGBT bakery get to refuse a customer who wants a cake opposing same-sex marriage?” Well, I guess they shouldn’t…provided you aren’t talking about something that strays into the realm of provocative hate speech, or incitement to hatred. But I’m sure that’s not the case, right?

But as I said, this is all just sideshow. The real purpose of this vote is not to bully Christian bakeries or place LGBT people on a pedestal above others. It’s to give them the same right to get married as everyone else in this country. Conscience clauses can take a hike.

You don’t have to look very far to find examples of the kind of attitude that this amendment is trying to fight back against, or even just redeem. Take Labour TD Anne Ferris, who talks about a traumatic experience from her younger life in the Irish Examiner. She grew up in a country where to be a single unwed mother was one of the worst social niches to be standing in, something to be avoided at all costs, to the extent that Ferris herself was kept out of sight during her pregnancy and then denied even the chance to speak about what had happened to her afterwards. Aside from the fact that, as mentioned last week, “No” campaigners are content to similarly ignore such single-parent families today as an inconvenient reality, this current campaign is also about challenging entrenched societal opinions on family, marriage, parenthood and the right to be open about the kind of person you are, across the board. No more hiding people from the neighbours, and no more settling for just that either.

The personal factor in the campaign is as obvious as it was before. Let’s take the specific example of teachers who are part of the LGBT community, whose employment rights and protections are still not on an even keel to others. Employers have lost the right to demand an applicant’s sexual orientation in interviews, but are still free to refuse to hire someone because of that very reason, usually by using the word “ethos” in an obnoxious manner. I’ve said it before about schools and “religious ethos” as an excuse for appalling treatment of people: it’s about as unchristian as you can get. SSM won’t change this particular issue, but it is part of that bigger struggle.

A big long article from Spiked caught my attention this week, the author enunciating a viewpoint that has become more and more common over the last few weeks, as the “No” side attempt to frame a narrative of aggressive and belligerent behaviour from the “Yes” side. The piece is a typical example: describing the drive for SSM as “groupthink”, as a movement dedicated to shutting down debate and disrespecting religious beliefs and yaddayaddayadda. I don’t think I can remember a referendum campaign where one side or the other didn’t eventually resort to complaints about “conduct” from their opponents. It would be tiresome if it wasn’t so irritating.

The author criticises the “Yes” side for acting like a minority when they are, seemingly, a very large majority (geez, I wonder why LGBT might be used to acting like an oppressed minority?). And that I think exposes his, and the “No” sides, own inferiority complex, that shines through when bleating about “conduct”: they are no longer the majority, now sitting in the unfamiliar surrounds of not having their open intolerance to equality, well, tolerated, or even supported by everyone around them. I suppose it can be a hard thing to accept, and the “attacks” – for which I read “reasoned debate” and “pleas for the bigotry to stop” – are a new, unwelcome thing, that people don’t know how to deal with. The icing on the cake is when the author himself compares the treatment of the “No” side with the treatment of homosexuals in the past. Aside from the ridiculous and offensive (intentional I’m sure) comparison, the actual fear is evident: Society is no longer permitting us to be openly intolerant. I’m terribly sorry you were “driven off Twitter” by requests for you to logically justify your bigotry.

In a larger sense, the author has no argument to actually make against SSM, just an “attack the attacker” mindset that is common enough when the cause being fought for has little to stand on. Don’t vote “Yes” because the “Yes” side is being mean to me (in my opinion). Not because there is anything wrong with SSM.

The Irish equivalent is Bruce Arnold, a man once bugged by Charles Haughey’s government, and now claiming that the current coalition is worse, because of things like SSM. “Don’t vote for SSM because you feel sorry for gays”. OK Bruce. I won’t. I’ll reserve my sorrow, my pity, and ultimately my forgiveness, for you. History might not be so nice of course. And that’s enough of that.

Mandy Johnston’s piece in the Indo this week was interesting, once you got past the slightly pretentious language in the opening half. Amid the now familiar warnings that passing the vote will be harder than it first appeared, Johnston has good points to make: that SSM has, justly or unjustly, been swept up into a larger discussion on family situations, even though the kind of families that are being objected to already exist. And, regardless of whether this vote passes or not, they will continue to exist and grow in number, thanks to the legislation that will soon be signed into law. This vote, aside from SSM, is about granting same sex families the same constitutional protection that other families have. “No” campaigners like to talk, at length, about the rights of children. How’s that for a right to fight for?

Time is slipping away. For every largely linked around story of hate leaflets being turned into confetti, there is some kind of “No” op-ed or soundbyte that will be siphoning votes away from the “Yes” side. As I’ve said before, that’s the real fight: not to get some grand block of “Don’t Know’s” or current “No” voters to go our way, but to mobilise the already existing “Yes” base to actually go out and vote on May 22nd. Moves from “Yes Equality” to kickstart their campaign by engaging people across the country with the very reasons for voting “Yes” – reasons that come from personal places aside from cold hard logic – are vital in getting the electorate to understand that this vote is about far more than just words on a constitutional page. It’s about the rights, and the equality, of people in this country, people whom our laws are treating as inferior, right now, as you read this. You know them. Don’t they deserve the same rights and freedoms as everyone else? Don’t “they” deserve to be just “us”?

You still have around three weeks (by my rough calculations, the 5th of May will be the last day such forms are processed) with which to get yourself registered to vote, sign up for postal voting or to change your constituency. If you do nothing else, if you don’t want to debate, or try and convince others, or do anything at all to get this amendment passed, you can still just vote.

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Review: The Second Game (Al Doilea Joc)

The Second Game (Al Doilea Joc)

Clip (No Trailers Available)

I should have known really.

I should have known really.

Now here is a bizarre one. Looking through the JDIFF brochure for films to watch, I was immediately struck by the information given for The Second Game, being a big sports fan. Not being able to see my first preference under that heading, Gabe Polsky’s Red ArmyThe Second Game seemed like an acceptable second choice. But having bought my ticket on impulse, part of me was wary before the screening, so strange was the premise being presented. Themes of sporting rivalry, politics, father-son relationships and football under dictatorships were all foremost in my mind as the film rolled, as well as worry that the kind of commentary-focused experience I was about to watch might see its effect lessened by the necessity of subtitles. I caught a screening of The Second Game at the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival.

In December 1988, Adrian Porumboiu refereed the hotly contested derby match between Dinamo and Steaua Bucharest. 26 years later, Adrian sits down with his son, documentary filmmaker Corneliu Porumboiu, to re-watch this game, with the two discussing Romanian football, the political situation in the country at the time and how much things have changed in the sport since that cold winter day.

What was I really expecting here? Maybe something that could elaborate on the corruption and deficiencies inherent in Romanian football in the period depicted. Maybe discussion on how the game took place in a country on the cusp of major political change. Maybe talk about how father and son view each other, a generation apart.

But what I did get can be summed up by three words I scribbled in my notes: “new wave shite”.

The Second Game is a film that I am so far from being the target audience for that it really is amazing that I bothered at all. Mr Porumboiu is, apparently, front and centre of the “Romanian new wave”, which means , to me, that his films are all exercises is obfuscation and muddying the point to a degree that makes them unintelligible. Porumboiu adds to this by making his films minimalist and cheap to an extreme, perhaps reaching his zenith here, where the visual side of things is literally just a grainy recording of a football match from the late 1980’s.

Everything then hinges on the discussion, and the discussion is this meandering dull thing, that lacks any stand-out pint making or evocative theme. Porumboiu has something he is trying to say with The Second Game, but I’m damned if I have the ability to figure it out. The dullness permeates the entire experience, as there are only a handful of moments when father and son seem to be having a conversation that I actually want to listen to, and these moments pass by alarmingly fast. The two discuss boring things as a very boring match – no matter what Adrian Porumboiu thinks – plays out in front of them. “Nothing’s happening” it is remarked at one point in a second half absent nearly any kind of excitement. “Just like one my films” says Porumboiu, laughing, and the audience might be forgiven for wondering if Porumboiu is laughing at them, for being stupid enough to pay money to sit down and watch this.

I mean, The Second Game starts with a degree of promise, as the director talks about how, as a child, he received threatening phone calls from people who wanted to influence his father one way or another when it came to the game in question. In the opening minutes, the elder Porumboiu talks about approaches made to him personally, and how he responded. No simple game of football here: Bucharest’s two major teams, organs of different sections of the state, are willing to do whatever it takes to win games. I hoped we might be going somewhere in the direction of stuff covered in Jonathan Wilson’s excellent Behind The Curtain: Travels In Eastern European Football, which contained an extensive chapter on the pitfalls and underhanded dealings that have often infected Romanian soccer. That was an outsider’s perspective, but here is a man who was, literally, in the middle of it all.

But it isn’t long after kick-off that the drudgery begins. Adrian Porumboiu has no great interest in discussing either the details of Romanian football’s problems at the time, or how football and politics interacted in Ceausescu’s Romania. The odd reference here and there, but Porumboiu seems more bemused by his sons project, and just wants to talk about the actual game going on in front of him.

I mean, here we are, watching the teams of the Romania army and secret police play out a gruelling derby in appalling weather, just a year ahead of Ceausescu’s violent overthrow, and there is just so little said about it at all, other than to acknowledge that such things happened. Here is a society that is comfortable with an astonishing level of corruption in its sport, but where the camera cuts away from “unsportsmanlike” behaviour since it can’t be show on television. There is an exploration to be had there, one ripe with insights into a very particular time, place and sport. But it just does not occur.

Maybe it might help if the game was in any good, but it isn’t. The pitch is a disaster, the snow a ruining impediment. A few moments of half-decent football occur, and one team hit the bar in the second half. But it’s mostly a messy, clipped and thoroughly boring contest, despite Porumboiu constant repetitions of a sentiment that it is anything but. Here is a man in the mould of Mark Lawrenson, bemoaning the modern state of the game, and lavishing praise on the physicality of a bygone era, when the sight of blood was common enough and crunching tackles that would get someone banned today are legal. “Look how hard they’re trying” he repeats endlessly, in lieu of actually talking about anything interesting, as if the efforts of the players to play football in this blizzard make up for the awfulness of the spectacle.

Maybe The Second Game is supposed to a portrait of the father then, this incorruptible figure who spends the 90 minutes espousing a philosophy of fairness in officiating and allowing for free-flowing football. But that just doesn’t really work out either. The elder Porumboiu just doesn’t want to talk about his upstanding nature too much, and the younger one doesn’t want to try and press the point. Perhaps he thinks watching his father refrain from giving a few deserved yellow cards is enough. It really isn’t.

What did I learn? What was the point? Precious little. The game ends in a dour scoreless stalemate, and the film ends almost immediately after, Porumboiu congratulating his father on a contest well refereed. The credits rolled and it came as a blessing, saving me from the temptation of sleep, a temptation I have not felt in a cinema theatre in a very long time.

“Minimalist”, in the context of this film anyway, appears to be a nice word for pointless. The younger Porumboui had the chance to make something that could appeal to Romanians and football fans everywhere, but instead settled for a listless exercise in just about nothing at all. The Second Game isn’t even a film really, because films have a point, a structure, a message. The Second Game has none of those things, not really, and exists only as a pretentious “new wave” piece of lazy commentary, where the director decides to let his audience do all the work of making whatever interpretations they please while he records himself and his father blathering on for 90 minutes and slaps a label on it. I’m never going to be an arthouse connoisseur, because I simply don’t have the time, energy or inclination to become invested in drek like this. I don’t know who could possibly enjoy something like this. Sports fans certainly won’t. It’s not the worst film of the year (unlike The Interview, The Second Game didn’t go out of its way to offend me), but it is something to avoid. Not recommended.

Pretty much it.

Pretty much it.

(All images are copyright of Contre-Allee Distrubition and Siehe Produktion).

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Ireland’s Wars: James’ Flight And The 1690 Siege Of Athlone

The Battle of the Boyne had been won by the Williamites, who took the Jacobite positions, inflicted more casualties and now stood poised to launch a larger offensive on Leinster itself. But the Jacobite army, while beaten, was not routed or anywhere close to being destroyed. In the immediate aftermath of the Boyne it retreated south-east towards Dublin, with no earnestly pressed pursuit from the Williamites. There were good reasons for that: the Williamite army was strung out and needed time to reform, they were tired from the battle and William wanted to wait a short time for a siege train to form up with his main force, should he need it in the days ahead. The Jacobite army, thanks largely to the work of its cavalry and French units, made it back to the relative safety of Dublin intact.

James was there well ahead of them of course, he and a small bodyguard of horsemen bringing news of the defeat to the city. There was no great panic – much of Dublin was Protestant, and the good state of the arriving army led to rumours and counter-rumours of Jacobite victory or only a minor defeat – but James’ next actions certainly started some. You can read into reams of supposition into what prompted James to do what he did, to again abandon the idea of defending his right to the crown militarily, to leave the combat to someone else and to flee into a second (and permanent) exile. Maybe it was just a spur of the moment fear based move, prompted by the poor display of the Irish infantry at the Boyne. Maybe it was motivated by a larger and more considered unease over the viability of James’ position, and the unlikely possibility of victory in the future. Maybe James was already suffering from some of the mental problems that would plague the final years of his life.

Either way, after a bafflingly misjudged speech to his chief councillors where he blamed his misfortunes solely on the Irish, James announced his intention to quit Ireland, leaving his authority in the hands of Richard Talbot. James wasn’t long in going ahead with his plan. Only a few days after the Boyne, he had left Dublin, heading south, eventually to reach a boat in Kinsale which took him back to France. He would never come back.

Naturally, the double blow of the defeat and the flight soiled what was left of James’ reputation in Ireland, and largely damned him in popular remembrance up the modern age. Some undoubtedly continued to treat James as a wronged, almost messianic, figure, but the truth is that he led an incompetent war effort, was prone to delusion and panic, and ran from the country long before things had come to a point where such an action might be considered strictly necessary. The entire Jacobite war effort was about defeating William and getting James back on the throne of Ireland: it must have been hard for soldiers to fight and die for that cause when their very figurehead had proven himself such a coward. James did not resign his claim on Britain, merely left it in the hands of others to prosecute that war.

Those others had precious little time in which to decide what to do. William’s forces paused for barely a day before beginning their advance on Dublin. A detachment from that force successfully summoned nearby Drogheda on the 2nd of July, the towns small garrison choosing to surrender after promise of safe passage west to Athlone. Drogheda had been a major flashpoint of the last war, but in the face of William’s massive strength and the memory of Cromwell, it gave in very quickly. Its capture barely slowed William down, and by the next day he was on the verge of taking Dublin itself.

Tyrconnell knew he couldn’t stay in Dublin. While it was the capital, it was largely indefensible: its walls too rudimentary, its citizenry too likely to welcome William in large parts, and its defenders too unreliable. Numerous regiments of Irish infantry has disbanded and headed west after reaching Dublin, choosing to run while they could and maybe fight another day, preferably on the west side of the River Shannon. What was left of the army could not be expected to fight another battle against the Williamites, and could not withstand a siege at Dublin.

So, Tyrconnell made the choice of abandoning not only Dublin, but most of Leinster, in a stroke. Though some have suggested that James left the instruction, more likely it was Tyrconnell who ordered what was left of the army to retreat south-west, with its regiments marching at their own pace and direction. Their eventual destination would be the city of Limerick. The French opinion was winning out. The Irish would move back to the Shannon, and resume their war there. The two lynchpins of Limerick in the south and Athlone in the north would be the major points, and hopefully a repetition of the last war would not take place. Trying to hold the majority of Leinster would be an impossible task. While a desperate move, it was probably the right one.

By the evening of the 3rd of July, Dublin had been all but abandoned, and William was able to march into the city in triumph, gleefully welcomed by its Protestant population, with many of the Catholic citizens following the Jacobite army towards Limerick. Dublin fell largely bloodlessly, with only minor destruction to property noted. It was a bad, but inevitable, blow to the Jacobites. William spent a few days in Dublin receiving deputations and getting a more national administration into being, before getting back on with the task at hand. The delay was regrettable for the Williamites, who might have been able to eliminate large parts of their retreating enemy if they had continued a pursuit. But, as would be made clear soon, there were rich rewards awaiting them in either case.

There was still plenty of time left in the campaigning season, and William was certainly of a mind to end this rebellion against his authority if he could, and transfer his attention to continental matters. His approach, once he had sorted things in Dublin to his satisfaction, was two-fold. He himself would lead the majority of his army in a sweeping arc through South Leinster and then into South Munster, targeting numerous Jacobite held towns and forts along the way, places that held small, and now isolated, garrisons, that he would try and bully into quick surrenders, just as he had with Drogheda. That accomplished, he would drive on to Limerick, there to force a climactic encounter with the majority of the Jacobite army.

At the same time, he would also try and insure his domination in Ireland by piercing the Shannon at both ends of its defensive usefulness. Like Henry Ireton before, William aimed to take both Limerick and Athlone in simultaneous operations. A force would be dethatched from his main army, which would head due south, the smaller arm sent to capture Athlone and its crossing over the Shannon, with which the Williamites could then organise a deeper penetration into Connacht, or even a swing south to join the operations around Limerick.

James Douglas, who had proven his worth in the campaign thus far, was given 12’000 men and a substantial amount of artillery for the task, marching west with little delay, suffering no serious impediment beyond rapparee attacks, which were not enough to impede him. Less than three weeks after the victory at the Boyne, the Williamites were outside the gates of Athlone, outnumbering its defenders 3-1.

But they reckoned without the garrison commander there who, unlike so many others in Ireland at the time, was not a man to be easily cowed. Richard Grace was a 78 year old son of the Barton of Courtstown, who was a veteran of both the English Civil Wars and the Eleven Year Wars in Ireland, where he had led a Tory band in the latter stages of the struggle. After the final defeat of the Royalist cause, he had entered Spanish service and proven himself useful, fighting alongside James II at the Battle of the Dunes in 1658, before joining his cause fully in the War of the Two Kings. He had 4’500 men with him in Athlone, mostly militia.

Grave was in no mood to give into Douglas’ demands that he surrender without a fight. Before any military operations had been undertaken around Athlone, Grace had already improved his position immensely, abandoning the eastern part of the town and destroying its bridge over the Shannon, occupying only the western side and daring Douglas to try and take it from him. Famously, he is reported to have fired a pistol over the head of the messenger who brought him the summons to surrender, declaring he would eat his own boots before considering a capitulation.

If Douglas was expecting an easy time of it then, he was disappointed. On the 17th of July he commended a bombardment of the town, firing shells over the river and into the western side, to little practical effect. The Williamites could fire all of the cannon and mortars that they wanted, but Athlone would remain untaken, its supply lines to the west intact, and the Williamites very far from home in their own right.  The few guns that Athlone had fired back, and started inflicting plenty of casualties of their own accord.

A frustrated Douglas had to act fast, and only two days into his attacks, decided to try a very risky infantry assault, crossing the Shannon (possibly at a fording point to the north, the sources are unclear) and trying to force a way into the western side of the town from there. The effort was bravely done, but repulsed easily enough by well-manned Jacobite outposts, the Williamite losses eventually reaching as high as 400, with the Jacobites suffering comparatively little. It was a rather pointless attack to make really, with little chance of success: it was simply too complex and dangerous on operation to undertake, with the river too wide and deep even at its best fording points, and the western fortifications too strong. Despite the Williamite advantage in men, they could no more force a way into the rest of Athlone than if William had been there with his entire army. That was the strength of the Shannon.

Douglas went back to his bombardment, trading cannon fire with Grace for another few days, but eventually had to see the hopelessness of his mission. He wouldn’t risk another water assault, his guns weren’t having the required effect, he did not have the position or time to starve Grace out, and rumours and reports of possible Jacobite relief forces, led by Patrick Sarsfield and coming from the direction of Limerick, abounded. On the 24th, Douglas acknowledged the impossibility of his task and withdrew. He took a circuitous route south to join William at Limerick, trying to avoid Jacobite entanglements, taking time and losses that the Williamites could ill afford at that moment. But even though Sarsfield was indeed in the vicinity, briefly, no really strong attempt was made to intercept Douglas.

The Siege of Athlone in 1690 is proof that, given the right conditions, the Jacobites could still hold their own and win victories. And this really was no small one. As we shall see next week, the Jacobite position all over the rest of country was collapsing, with morale in the depths following the defeat of the Boyne and James’ flight. But Grace, through his own command and the strength of the Athlone position, was able to halt a seemingly invincible Williamite army, and even give better than he got in terms of casualties. There was still no indication that the Jacobite Irish could go toe to toe with the Williamites, but when given the right defences to guard and a good commander, they could perform ably, with the Athlone defenders remaining resolute under-fire and denying the Williamites the chance to cross the Shannon. Douglas was given a difficult and deadly task, his faction severely under-estimating the necessary requirements for taking Athlone. There would be no envelopment of Connacht from two sides that summer.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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Same-Sex Marriage Referendum: 46 Days Out

Maureen Gaffney opens us up with this excellent op-ed in the Irish Times, which very quickly illustrates and torpedo’s some of the inherent hypocrisy of the “No” argument, or at least the common ones. You’ll after see the “No” opinion pieces blather on about the requirement of “natural” procreation as one of the keystones of an actual marriage. That this throws heterosexual unions that have either consciously decided not to have children, or are unable to for whatever reason, under the bus, largely goes unacknowledged maybe because it’s a little awkward to explain that something like marriage cannot exist in a black and white vacuum. But there’s also the more insidious thing, which is the usually quite short acknowledgement, and then just as fast dismissal, of single parent families, who don’t conform to the apparent necessity of both a paternal and maternal influence on a child’s upbringing. It’s just too hard to tackle that uncomfortable truth I suppose.

And when it comes to the oft-heard cries of “Why can’t they just be happy with civil partnership?”, well Gaffney’s piece also illustrates both the practical difference between CP and marriage – financially and legally, there are a multitude of differences, as this great concise piece demonstrates – but the simple quest for open social acceptance of homosexual unions, that simply won’t happen while we are content to plaster a different label on them. This is not “separate, but equal”, even if that was something to strive for.

And this is important because of how many homosexual people are Irish. Don’t trust the exact figures presented here, which are bound to be skewed by an older generation that does not want to acknowledge their true sexual orientation. But even taking those numbers as fact, we can see that there are a lot of LGBT people in our society, and they suffer from plenty of problems as it is: check out this report/op-ed on some of those problems, including an alarmingly high rate of attempted suicide. More people on this Ireland are gay than speak the Irish language on a daily basis, but only one of those groups has constitutional protection of any kind. SSM won’t solve those problems, but it’s democratically mandated implementation will be a very important step.

Over on the Indo, a report on how Taoiseach Kenny has been, ahem “challenged” about some comments he made regards school teaching and same-sex marriage. Seems some are bothered by the idea of schools teaching kids that SSM is, well, a thing in the event that the vote passes. More conscience clause nonsense dressed up “Won’t somebody think of the children?” I suppose it’s only natural: that next generation could be the most tolerant of the LGBT community ever, and that must be a terrifying prospect to the kind of people “challenging” the Taoiseach on a blatant statement of fact.

You might remember last week, when I noted how Fianna Fail is probably suffering a bit of a problem in how it wants to approach this referendum, with one of its parliamentary party already jumping ship. It never takes these people too long to show their true colours, and it was only a few days before Senator Jim White was making the insulting suggestion that, instead of prosecuting the case for SSM, we should use the referendum money on HIV tests for the LGBT community. Never forgot what these people are really like: scared, fear-mongering bigots, with views from another decade, with no qualms about drawing a line between a civil rights issue and a disease.

He’s not the only one in Fianna Fail, with a local councillor getting in on the act (a few more are going to end up joining them I would guess). Strong reek of electioneering in this decision, but I couldn’t help but smile at part of his statement, past all of the nonsense about tradition:

“…let us hope that we will not have done irreparable damage to our nation, which in the past inspired other nations on the road to greatness.”

Inspiring others nations on the road to greatness is certainly a sentiment I can get behind for this vote.

What about those parts of the world where SSM is a reality already, like, say, parts of the UK? Well, surprise, surprise, the sky has not fallen down, and “traditional marriage” trundles along as it always has. Lots of people are taking up the SSM option, for social, legal and financial reasons, and that’s great. But it’s good to see the problems illustrated too: of LGBT couples having to be more public, accepting the dissenting views of families and businesses. I say it’s good because the legalisation of SSM means that a very harsh light is being thrown on this discrimination, which is one part of the process of making it a thing of the past. Even in places where SSM is not legal, the debate is ramping up on how willing a modern democratic society is with those who want to follow their “conscience” and thus treat an entire segment of society as some kind of lower being.  There’s pain for many to come with the legalisation of SSM, but there is a happier place coming just after.

Speaking of pain to come, here’s the interminable John Waters, providing a truly epic summary of his argument against SSM and the associated acts passing the legislature currently on the issue of families, children and adoption. I’ll agree with Waters on one thing: the “Yes” side should stop pretending that this legislation and the SSM vote are separate things. They aren’t. They’re dual rungs on a ladder that tops out at greater equality in our society, it’s just that one can be passed into law without any need to reference it to the people, thankfully.

Walters is doing something in that piece that he’s done before, for the Children’s Rights Referendum (remember, where he suggested foster families were only in it for the money). And that is to make mountains out of molehills. In a staggering 2’200 words, Waters makes a number of elongated suggestions wrapped in incomprehensible jargon and deliberately confusing wording, which essentially boils down to a scary portrait of LGBT couples gaining custody of children, wrapped up in the usual long-winded diatribes about “men’s rights”. Altering the lack of rights fathers have in a court room is one thing, but it’s something else to suggest it should happen at the expense of LGBT people. When Waters can’t make a clear, cogent argument about voting “No”, he resorts to something gigantic and confusing, trying to tap in to the “Don’t Know, Vote No” market.

In the end, as with nine out of ten “No” op-ed’s I have had the misfortune to suffer through during this campaign, Waters would be a great deal more honest, and much easier to digest, if he just presented his argument as easily as he can. Only six words required:

“I don’t trust homosexuals with children.”

Remember that. The most common “No” arguments, stripped down to their barest form, are just those six words. And it doesn’t even make sense as an argument against the amendment, as I’ll cover in the next point.

The most recent poll shows that support for gay marriage remains strong, with another slight contraction once you throw in the undecideds. Nothing to panic over majorly just yet. Just. In regards the gay adoption issue also included in the questioning, I find it interesting that people seem generally happier with lesbian couples adopting instead of two men. But the larger trend is clear: people in Ireland are more conservative on that issue than they are with gay marriage.

But here’s the kicker for that, and something that should be shouted from the rooftops in the face of any “No” commentator screeching about children: if this amendment is voted down, LGBT people will still be adopting more kids. The legislation that is passing the Oireachtas is connected to SSM, but will be made law with or without it. If LGBT people are denied the right to be married, they will still have increased rights to adopt children. They won’t have the same constitutional protection they would have otherwise, but the adoption ship has sailed, passed over the horizon, and is about to dock halfway across the world. In that sense, yeah, the legislation has little to do with the referendum.

To be clear then, no matter what Waters, or Mullen or whoever say about children or try to make them the major issue: they have already lost that battle. And voting “No” will not change that. And if the issue is that children with adoptive LGBT parents will find it difficult in a society which contains such a large element that will view them as abnormal – I’m sure the above mentioned would never dare voice that opinion publically of course – then saying “Yes” to SSM, and giving them a constitutionally protected family will be a very positive step in tackling that discrimination.

I’ll close out this week with a very potent warning, from Eoghan McDermott. There’s a lot worth reading in there: the danger of trusting early polls; the reality that too much of the “Yes” argument is preaching to the choir, and not undecided voters; the likelihood of a fear-based narrative from the “No” side, and how that will win hearts to their cause easier than a “Yes” appeal to logic (endangered children win over “equal rights”);  and, most importantly, how too much of the “Yes” movement is ignorant of how statements made by both sides will end up influencing the electorate. Bishops and the likes of Ronan Mullen saying something bigoted is more likely, in my view, to get them votes rather than lose them as things stand. Make no mistake about it: the “Yes” side’s battle is to keep that 70+% of the electorate on their side, enough to pass the vote anyway, rather than win a swath of undecided voters.

It can be difficult to see the woods for the trees. It can be very hard to treat opponents – the ones drawling a line between the vote and HIV, the ones claiming incestuous marriages are about to become legal, and the ones who don’t trust homosexuals with children – with anything approaching respect. But McDermott might have a point when he says that the “Yes” panellists, debaters and anyone else, need to walk softer with their public utterances. Bigotry is bigotry, and it should be called out. But that needs to be matched with the right argument, and the right appeals to emotion. Letters and appeals like this one could hold the key, to consistently remind voters that this is no hypothetical issue, but one that affects a large amount of real people.

Still time to register to vote, to change your constituency or to sign up for postal voting.

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