Ireland’s Wars: Clonard And The End

On the 10th of July, the Wexford army of the United Irishmen arrived at the camp of their Kildare brethren, at Timohoe in the Bog of Allen. They hoped to find succour, reinforcement and fresh impetus to raise both Kildare and the surrounding counties, the entire purpose for their desperate march out of the south-east.

But instead, they found a fellow rebel army on the brink of throwing in the towel. Commanded by William Aylmar, what remained of the Kildare United Irishmen had been reeling from the defeat at Ovidstown, and had already sent several weekends thrashing out terms of surrender with the government authorities, in line with the surrender of the other Kildare camps previous in the rebellion. That final laying down of arms in return for protection was near, and Aylmar was none too impressed with Mogue Kearns’ men or his plan, deeming it impossible to carry out with their limited amount of supplies and arms. Aylmar and his men flat-out refused to join Kearns in his ambitious operation.

Worse still, a section of Kearns men, under Edward FitzGerald of Newpark, detached from the Wexford army and threw in their lot with Aylmar. They had never been fully on-board with Kearns since the choice at Whelp Rock, and now decided that it would be better to seek and accept reasonable terms. The day after their arrival, Kearns led his further depleted force onwards. The Kildare army, and FitzGerald, eventually finished their peaceful surrender on the 21st.

The Wexford men marched on to the north, coming to the border with Meath. Numbering anywhere between 2’000 or 10’000 men depending on who you believe, they were now badly under-supplied and exhausted, having covered a remarkable distance in only a few days. Kearns pressed onwards, and sought to cross the Boyne River via the bridge at Clonard, a small town not too far from the border with Westmeath and Kildare.

The bridge was defended by a small number of armed locals, centred around the loyalist Tyrell family, who owned a number of buildings near the bridge, from which they set up a defensive position. They were remarkably outnumbered, but had a surplus of skill with firearms, and with the added benefit of walls to place themselves behind, determined to effect a resistance to any rebel crossing of the river. Kearns ordered an attack, and for six dreadful hours on the 11th of July, the United army attempted to storm the Tyrell household.

Despite their overwhelming advantage in numbers, the rebels were unable to secure either the household or the bridge, perhaps due to the likelihood that their final gunpowder supplies had now disappeared. Accurate and deadly fire from the defenders, some of them stationed in a tower that had built not too long ago in the event of a rebel attack, inflicted terrible casualties on the advancing infantry. They were able, eventually, to take and fire that tower, but the overall capture of the buildings next to the bridge was beyond them. When a small amount of mounted yeomanry reinforcements approached the scene of the fighting, the rebels retreated back the way they had come. Around 160 of them fell at Clonard, the last significant engagement of this phase of 1798.

Fleeing back into Kildare, another split occurred among the United army, as the majority of the Wicklow-based rebels now decided to head back to their homes, if they could, leaving Kearns with only a small remnant of the force that had assembled at Whelp Rock. Numerous branches of the government military – regular cavalry, yeoman infantry and suddenly assembled armed groups of militia – were now streaming to the region, and Kearns’ men were soon involved in repeated small-scale engagements. Heading first east and then north, the army began to break up as the slower and more exhausted struggled to keep pace with the others, and government forces happily swooped in to kill or capture such unfortunates. What limited supplies that the rebels still had with them were also easy prey.

Yet still they kept going, still hoping to find somewhere where the spirit of the rebellion could still be stoked, briefly crossing the border into County Louth, before being repulsed by an enemy force at Knightstown Bog on the 13th of July. It was there, at the conclusion of a march that had gone beyond 400 miles in the course of a few weeks, that the final desperate disintegration of the rebel army occurred, as what remained of its leadership either ordered or did not try to stop their men breaking out in all directions, in an attempt to avoid the massing government artillery, that would surely have blown them all to pieces if they had remained where they were.

For some days afterwards, the government cavalry was busy tracking down groups of rebel fighters, varying in size from a handful to over 300, that were simply trying to escape detection and capture, no longer in any capable state when it came to fighting a war. Some would make it back to Wexford, and some would find new lives for themselves among locals in Meath and Kildare who took them in and hid them from the government pursuit. But many would be found and either be killed on the spot or taken as prisoners, to await an uncertain fate of execution or deportment to British colonies in the southern hemisphere. Kearns and William Perry, the nominal leaders, stayed together and avoided arrest for over a week, but were eventually found, tried for treason and executed rapidly, by hanging.

Kearns’ plan was hideously ambitious, and flew in the face of the actual reality playing out all around him. The situation at Timahoe should have provided all the proof that he needed that the rebellion was essentially finished: those still in arms were not in a position to continue the fight, and the local people were no longer going to rise up. But still Kearns and the others pressed on, to their final destruction not all too far from the border of Cavan, having strayed all-around the south-east and the midlands in those terrible last few weeks. In what few recognisable engagements that were fought, the rebels were easily bested, with the repulse at Clonard, when the United Irishmen may have outnumbered their opponents over a hundred to one, one of the last examples of rebel inability to successfully assault well defended fortified positions.

In the end, Kearns failed in both his main objective – of reinvigorating the rebellion – and in secondary ones like in the engagement at Clonard or any subsequent encounter with the government. While one cannot question the determination or bravery of those Wexford men who doggedly held their shape and clung on all the way to the final skirmish at Knightstown, the wisdom or necessity of the entire campaign can certainly be examined critically, in relation to its slim likelihood of success in exchange for so many needless casualties.

With the end of this campaign, it seemed like the end of the 1798 rebellion. There remained guerrilla bands operating in the Wicklow Mountains, and the tiresome task of dealing with the mountain of captured rebels now kicking their heels in overcrowded and poorly maintained prisons. But Cornwallis, having only just taken up his new position in Dublin, could well be satisfied that the fighting in Ireland was over.

Naturally enough, he was wrong.

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

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Serenity: The Intro

(Unfortunately, I can’t find the clip to put in here as a reference, and screencaps just wouldn’t cut it).

The opening of Serenity, the first 10 minutes or so anyway, needs to accomplish a lot. Most of the viewers – or at least the studio would have hoped so – would not have been familiar with the TV series, and so wouldn’t have any idea what to make of the many characters inhabiting this fictional universe. The early shots established that universe in deliberately simple terms – Exodus from Earth, new solar system, Alliance good, war fought, Reavers – then we got to see Simon and River’s situation and relationship defined, then we got that amazingly effective introduction to the Operative.

And then we see Serenity. And in a sequence that lasts only a few minutes, the audience learns the following information:

-what kind of a ship Serenity is

-What it’s various interior rooms look like

-The five core crewmembers

-Their roles on the ship

-Their relationships and conflicts with each other

-Their trade and current status

-Simon and River’s dynamic on the ship

And most of that is delivered in a faux one-shotter (it’s actually two shots, with the break as Mal starts walking down the stairs while talking to Simon) that takes us from the cockpit to the cargo bay. Whedon has this intro included in the “Kitchen Sink” script, and it is retained almost to the letter, indicating he had this whole idea in mind for a long time. I consider it a genius sequence in regards dumping a lot of necessary info in a subtle and natural fashion. Let’s go through it.

The early shots show Serenity gliding gracefully into view, before the more visceral experience of its entry into a planetary atmosphere. Those used to modern sci-fi films are bombarded with smooth flying vessels that are as sleek as they are shiny, and while Serenity is dirtier than most, it isn’t too far off this stereotype.

Until a piece of it suddenly falls off. And then we are in the interior.


What was that?


Did you see that?


Was that the primary buffer panel?


It did seem to resemble…


Did the primary buffer panel just fall off my gorram ship for no apparent reason?


Looks like.

So, we have a guy at the controls, presumably a pilot, and the guy proclaiming Serenity to be his ship, presumably the captain. More than that, we learn that Serenity is no sleek Star Trek/Wars-esque spacecraft, but a banged up machine that has bits falling off of it, to the exasperation of its owner. Immediately, there is a sense of desperation being made, helped by the alarms and the shaking, that will grow and grow.


I thought Kaylee just checked the entry couplings. I have a very clear memory of…


Well, if she doesn’t get us some extra flow from the engine room to offset the burn-through, this landing is going to get pretty interesting.


Define “interesting”?


“Oh God, oh God, we’re all going to die”?

Here we can glean that a person named “Kaylee” is the engineer. More than that, we immediately get an idea for the kind of dialogue that is frequent on the ship, that slightly sarcastic, slightly dark sense of humour, that will come from Wash most of all. Mal gets on the intercom.


This is the captain, we have a little problem with our entry sequence, so we may experience some slight turbulence and then…explode.

Mal’s captaincy confirmed, and the dark humour continued. Off course, this also gives the feeling that Serenity isn’t about to crash, since Mal treats the idea so playfully.


Can you shave the vector?


I’m doing it, it’s not enough.


Well, just get us on the ground.


That part will happen pretty definitely.

More humour, and indications of the kind of relationship that Mal has with his crew, but Mal is already walking away. The slightly grungy interior of the cockpit gives way to the blue tinted hallway leading to the galley as the camera follows Mal, who is immediately checked by a huge burly man carrying a large gun and with many grenades strapped around him. Straight away, we can guess that this is a tough guy.


We’re gonna explode? I don’t wanna explode?

But not a guy with “an overabundance of brains” clearly.


Jayne, how many weapons you plannin’ on taking, you only got the two arms?


I just get excitable as to choice, like to have my options open.


I don’t plan on any shooting taking place during this job.


Well, what you plan and what takes place ain’t ever exactly been similar.


…No grenades.


Huh? Ah!


No grenades!

OK, so we know that Jayne is muscle, and likes to shoot things, clearly. But in that he frequently clashes with Mal, though in this specific instance it is mostly a friendly manner. Still, there is that spark of dispute between them. Further, we know that this crew has “a job”, and it looks likely that it is criminal I nature. Even further, we can infer that, when it comes to things like this, Mal doesn’t have the very best luck.

Mal continues his odyssey and runs into a woman walking towards the cockpit, dressed similarly to him.


We crashing again?

This happens a lot then, it seems.


Talk to your husband.

So, Zoe and Wash are married.


Mule prepped?


Good to go Sir, just loading her up.

Everyone is preparing for this job, that will require a vehicle of some kind. Not really important in terms of exposition, but gives an indication for what’s to come. We can briefly overhear a fading conversation between Zoe and Jayne.


Those grenades?


Yeah, captain don’t want ‘em.


Jayne, we’re robbing the place, not occupying it.

So, the crew is about to commit a robbery of some kind, one big enough that it requires guns and vehicles.

Mal wanders through the galley, a place that is strewn with various kinds of messes: plates, food, utensils, all scattered about. This really isn’t Star Trek, this place has that lived in look. The ship shakes violently again, rattling plates, causing Mal to actually have to stand in place for a moment, before he shouts “offscreen”, continuing on his way through another hallway and to what appears to be an engine room.


Kaylee! Kaylee, what in the sphincter of hell are you playing at? We got the primary buffer panel coming right…

The language being used here gives a firm indication as to the rusticness of the characters and the setting.

A short woman, wearing engineer clothes and with a very greasy face appears from the right, looking stressed as hell amid the moving parts and numerous buttons. The engineer/mechanic, clearly.


Everything’s shiny captain, not to fret.

Sparks fly and steam appear, betraying the casualness of her words. She continues working while Mal talks.


You told me those entry couplings would last for another week…


That was six months ago captain…

She doesn’t even look at him when she says this, and the tone is matter of fact. Kaylee is well used to this. Serenity is a ship that clearly has all sorts of problems with old and failing parts. After a beat to digest his failing memory, Mal has his retort:


My ship don’t crash. She crashes, you crashed her.

Kaylee gives him a glare as more sparks fly, unhappy with the assertion, setting up some of the animosity between Mal and Kaylee later. So, we’ve introduced the five core crewmembers, established their roles on the sip (bar Zoe, but that will become more clear in time), the basis of their interpersonal relationships, some of their interpersonal conflicts as well as the status of the crew, their livelihood and their ramshackle ship. Then Mal turns and Simon, who has already been introduced previously, is right in Mal’s face.


Doctor. Guess I need to get inoced before we hit planetside. (Ship rattles). Bit of a rockety ride, nothing to be worried about.


I’m not worried.


Fear’s nothing to be ashamed of Doctor.


This isn’t fear. This is anger.


Well, kind of hard to tell one from t’other, face like yours.


Well, I imagine if it was fear my eyes would be wider.


Hmm. I’ll keep a lookout for that next time.

There’s an automatic tension between the two, Simon directly calling attention to the fact that he’s fixed Mal with a hard stare he has no intention of breaking. Mal tries to laugh it off, and fails.


You’re not taking her.


No, no. This is not a thing I’m interested in talking over…


She’s not going with you and that’s final.

It doesn’t take a super genius to figure they are talking about River. Mal turns more serious and tries to walk away, and then Simon puts his foot down. But it’s a pained thing, as even Simon with the stern voice and stare seems small next to the more authoritative Mal, who turns and fixes Simon with his own hard stare.


I ever hear the word “That’s final” coming out of your mouth even again, they truly will be.

We know he means what he says, and his threat is so much more effective than Simon’s resistance. This is the biggest part of the soft reboot, and the animosity between Mal and Simon is instantly established. Mal and Simon start walking down some stairs.


This boat is my home. You all are guests on it.

Mal establishes that Simon and River are not considered part of his crew proper, which differs markedly from the TV series, but I’m sure makes reasonable sense to a new audience.


Guests? Now I earn my passage captain.


And its time your little sister learned from your fine example.


I have earned my passage treating bullet holes, knife wounds, laser burns…


Some of our jobs are more interesting than others…

So, Serenity and its crew are frequently involved in violent activities that require the attention of a doctor. Simon’s place here becomes achingly clear.


And you want to put my sister in the middle of that.


Didn’t say “want”. Said “will”.

Mal stamps his authority even further. We know that there is only one way that this will end.

The two move through a sparse living area and into the blue-lit infirmary.


It’s one job doc, she’ll be fine.


She’s a 17-year-old girl. A mentally traumatised 17…


She’s a reader. See’s into the truth of things. Might see trouble before its coming, which is of use to me.


And that’s your guiding star isn’t it? What’s of use?

Some reiteration of River’s status here. We already knew she was a psychic, but Mal uses a more colloquial term. The crew knows about River’s abilities anyway, and of their potential use. Simon’s accusation that Mal is treating people only as well as he can get some use from them sets up further conflict down the road in regards the Captain and his crew.


Honestly Doctor, I think we might just crash this time anyway.


Do you understand what I have gone through to keep River away from the Alliance?


I do, and it’s a fact we here have been courteous enough to keep to our own selves.

That’s a threat if ever there was one, and Simon sees it as such.


Are you threatening…

What follows is the manifesto of movie Mal, as he and Simon move gradually into the cargo bay.


I look out for me and mine. That don’t include you less I conjure it does. Now, you stuck a thorn in the Alliance’s paw. That tickles me a bit. But it also means I have to step twice as fast to avoid them, and that means turning down plenty of jobs. Even honest ones. Put this crew together with the promise of work, which the Alliance makes harder every year. Come a day there won’t be room for naughty men like us to slip about at all. This job goes south, there may well not be another. So here’s us. On the raggedy edge. Don’t push me. And I won’t push you.

A lot here. There is Mal’s antipathy towards the Alliance, which we might sense is more than just the difference between a criminal and an authority. There is the crew’s lack of success, and the seeming possibility that they are about to fall off the brink un terms of financial survival. There is Mal’s own temperament, which is clearly reaching the breaking point, something that will be important later. And Mal walks off speaking Mandarin, introducing that facet of the universe.

As Simon walks up a catwalk, Mal converses with Zoe.


Zoe, Wash gonna straighten this boat out before we get flattened?


Like a downy feather sir, no one flies like my mister.

That’s Wash and Zoe named, their marital status reaffirmed, and Wash’s skill as a pilot emphasised. Simon finds his sister lying on a catwalk, in a pose that could suggest sleeping or eavesdropping.




I know. We’re going for a ride.

Her slight creepiness, her “reader” abilities and the action to come are set-up with that small exchange.

That’s the end of the tracking shot, but there is a little bit more. Mal and River share a moment that emphasises Mal’s dissatisfaction with his lot in life right now (more in delivery than in word), there is more humour between Mal and Simon before the more serious stuff later, and there is also a very important beat between Simon and Kaylee, to set-up the romantic sub-plot between them.

The entire sequence lasts only a few minutes, but the amount of characterisation, exposition and general set-up that has been accomplished is utterly immense. We know these characters’ names, how they interact with each other, the ship and its various facets, and what is to come. Other films and other properties would spend much longer doing all of this, and would probably do it a mite clumsier as well. But not Whedon, and not Serenity.



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Review: Hitchcock/Truffaut




Two film-making giants. Well, one at least.

Here’s one that I happened to miss when it popped up in the ADIFF schedule earlier this year, but was still very much interested in seeing. Neither Hitchcock nor Truffaut have ever really been my forte, but I was recently entranced by Attaboy Clarence’s series of biographical podcasts on the British director, enough that this offering, on one of the most famous conversations about film to take place since the medium began, intrigued me. In combination with Netflix’s recent uploading of two of Hitchcock’s most famous films – Vertigo and Rear Window -, iTunes was able to oblige me in my hunt for more on the master of tension and suspense. But was the documentary worth seeing?

Over the course of eight days in 1962, French New Wave director Francois Truffaut sat down with an interpreter, and conducted an extensive and deep-ranging interview with Alfred Hitchcock, discussing his filmography, his style, and his thoughts on all things film. The resulting book has become a veritable Bible for succeeding generations of filmmakers, who Kent Jones brings together with the aim of examining the far reaching influence of that Hitchcock/Truffaut exchange.

The film I would probably compare this to the most would be last year’s excellent Best Of Enemies. Both are about the media, and about two personalities who came together famously in a discussion involving that media for a famous few days. But where Best Of Enemies really swept you up in the narrative it was trying to convey, aided greatly by the sheer animosity between the two men it was discussing, Hitchcock/Truffaut sort of struggles, largely because there isn’t really much of a narrative to be found here.

Hitchcock/Truffaut is less of a story, and more of a lecture: not in a patronising way, but in the style of an academic classroom. Watching Hitchcock/Truffaut, one feels as if they are in a university being educated on the finer aspects of Hitchcock’s past work and style. It isn’t truly investigative, or exploratory, or recordation in its style. Instead, it is more of a visual essay on Hitchcock similar to the likes of Every Frame A Painting, and to Truffaut, to a much lesser extent

This is the Hitchcock story. The interviews themselves were largely about him of course, and not Truffaut, but I still was surprised by how slanted the documentary became in favour of the British director, with Truffaut’s life, films and opinions relegated to an occasional snippet of interjection, from both the man himself and from the narration. Hitchcock’s life is fascinating enough, but it’s well-known, at least relative to Truffaut, the kind of director far less familiar to English-speaking audiences. If this was supposed to be the story of Hitchcock/Truffaut, I felt like he would have been more interesting to develop a greater parity in the presentation of the two men, perhaps with more on how Truffaut was influenced by Hitchcock.

I suspect there may have been some rights issues with Truffaut’s films, with only one of them being showcased in anything resembling detail, which may have been a factor in the lop-sided focus. Moreover, there is little attempt to really define the relationship between the two men, despite some interesting beginnings, as Hitchcock responds so emotionally to Truffaut’s original letter of praise and intent. Beyond that, Truffaut just happens to be present.

But if you are the kind of cinephile that revels in a bombastic personality like Hitchcock, Hitchcock/Truffaut will be manna from heaven. Here, we get to see both the old master expound, at length, on his work, visual tricks and method of crafting a film, interjected frequently with modern directors praising the same. But thankfully it isn’t just a non-stop train of vacuous compliments: the likes of Wes Anderson, Martin Scorsese and David Fincher instead get the opportunity to really talk about what Hitchcock and his vast career meant for them, which is a nice touch.

The titbits are fascinating here. We get to see Hitchcock as the ingenious cinematographer, like when he came up with a glass floor to maximise the impression of people on the lower floor imagining what someone above them was doing in The Lodger, the amazing use of colour in Vertigo or his many well-placed high-angle shots, whenever he wanted to give that impression of an almighty looking down over a scene.

We see him as the sometimes aloof and borderline disrespectful man manager, who remarks that “All actors are cattle” for films he has long since thought out to the smallest detail in pre-production, and whose relationship with some of his female stars was woefully inappropriate. We see him as the man more obsessed with his own personal vision than someone who wants to truly engage with characters and narrative, the person who would become the poster boy for the “auteur” school of thought, rightly or wrongly.


And we get to see Hitchcock the genius, primarily in two lengthier segments discussing Psycho and Vertigo. Psycho, I suppose Hitchcock’s most well-known film in the popular consciousness, was one that broke the most steadfast and self-explanatory screenwriting rule in the business, in killing off its main character in such famous circumstances half-way through the film. And so it became one of the most effective horror thrillers in film history, a film that is a true genre-defining experience.

But if it was Hitchcock’s biggest moment in terms of popularity, it was also the film, more than any other perhaps, that propagated a view that he was not a serious artistic director, but someone who instead crafted opiates for the masses, the dreaded tag of “light-entertainment” all too easily latched onto his films, a curse that followed Hitchcock around all throughout his career, but perhaps no time more so than the period of these interviews, as Hitchcock finished up production on his last great film, The Birds.

It was this perceived injustice that drove Truffaut to undertake his project, so that the director he so admired could be given the opportunity be seen as the genius that he is widely acknowledged as being nowadays. And nothing shows the reality more than Vertigo, with Jones delighted to give us the opportunity to see both modern interviewees opinions of it, and Hitchcock’s own thoughts.

I never even liked Vertigo all that much – I find it an overly-patient slow-boil experience, that only breaks out of average mystery territory in its final half-hour – but its impact on the film-making community, with its psychological examinations, use of colour and demented third act, is undeniable. It is a perverted story, as more than one commenter notes, but an utterly fascinating one all the same, where a murder mystery plot metamorphosis into a tense mental drama involving themes of illusion, insanity and necrophilia. The likes of James Gray offer some pertinent examinations of key scenes, like the first visit to the painting of Carlotta Valdez and how its framing showcases Hitchcock’s mastermind understanding of what to show and what not to show onscreen.

These visual essay segments are interesting enough in their own right, and keep you engaged all the way to the end of the easily digestible 80-minute production, but one can’t help but feel that, split into separate sections, what we get in Hitchcock/Truffaut would be a half-decent documentary TV series, as opposed to a slightly aimless documentary film. I say aimless because it just isn’t clear enough what the overall point is to this film, beyond simple presenting the subject matter without much incisive exploration from the director.

Hitchcock/Truffaut is framed just fine, with strong, refrained narration, good inter-splicing of film clips and archive footage, and the proper use of the audio recording Truffaut made of the interviews themselves. One could probably listen to Hitchcock talk for hours – Truffaut did it for days – and you do, in the course of Hitchcock/Truffaut, get a certain sense of Hitchcock the man: the dry humour, the slightly haughty attitude, the desire to be praised and to hold forth on his own opinions at length. He isn’t too prissy or infallible: one of the most memorable exchanges is Hitchcock’s acknowledging what he doesn’t like about Vertigo (the “hole in the story” as he puts it, regarding the murderer’s certainty that Scotty won’t be able to make it up the tower). Hitchcock/Truffaut isn’t a biography of Hitchcock really, aside from some brief moments on his earlier career and marriage to key collaborator Alma Reville, but it is still at pains to give us the kind of portrait it unfortunately fails to give us of Truffaut, who largely comes off as a bit of a one-note sycophant.

Hitchcock/Truffaut then is a brief enjoyable experience, just about worth the price of admission if you want to see a few decent visual essays on Hitchcock’s’ most famous creations. But ultimately I did feel just a little bit let down by it all: I think I got more fulfilment out of watching Rear Window, that I still feel is Hitchcock’s very best creation ever, than watching this, which is a shame. The central thesis, if the film has one, is simply that Hitchcock is one of the most influential film-makers in history, right down to the present day, which is not exactly front-page news.

Instead of hearing about it, or watching others talk about it, it might be better to break out copies of The Wrong Man, The 39 Steps, The Birds, North By Northwest, Strangers On A Train, Notorious, Rebecca or The Man Who Knew Too Much and experience it for yourself. An interesting, but a bit unsatisfying, effort, Hitchcock/Truffaut can only get a partial recommendation from me.


Maybe only for a select audience.

(All images are copyright of the Cohen Media Group).

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The NUI Seanad Election Results (2016)

The count is over, and we have most of a Seanad. How did things turn out in the NUI constituency?

No-hopers (0-500 votes): Jerry Beades, Paul D’Alton, Karen Devine, Owen Joseph Dineen, Luke Field, Ross Golden-Bannon, John Higgins, Daragh McGreal, Michael Molloy, Paddy Monahan

Never got any traction, winding up with around, or less than, 5% of a quota. It’s obviously a disappointment for any candidate to wind up in such a position, but the people I would be most surprised by would be D’Alton, Higgins and Monahan, who I thought ran better campaigns and offered better policies than their vote count got. The worse-off victims of the vote dilution caused by so many candidates. Just about what was bound to happen, when you had an election where thirty candidates were asked to share around 36’000 votes. For others, like Beades and Molloy, exactly what I expected.

Also-rans (501-1000 votes): Deirdre Burke, Enda O’Coineen, Maire Darker, Pearce Flannery, Aideen Hayden, Rory Hearne, Carol Hunt, Barry Johnston, Brendan Price, Kieran Rose

Only slightly more respectable, and in some cases very slight. Party affiliation surely hurt Flannery and Hayden, and priority issues like emigrant votes and the environment weren’t enough to attract enough interest for Johnston and Price. I’m disappointed especially for Rose, who was my #2 preference.

Mid-pack (1001-2000 votes): David Begg, Martin Daly, Laura Harmon, Christy Kenneally, Eddie Murphy, Ellen O’Malley-Dunlop

Some of these, especially Harmon, managed to keep in touch with the leaders for a large part of the process, but were ultimately never going to win a seat from Count One onwards. Kenneally should be very happy with his placing, as should my own #1, O’Malley-Dunlop, thought it just wasn’t enough to become truly competitive.

Competitors (2001+): Padraig O’Ceidigh, Alice-Mary Higgins, Michael McDowell, Ronan Mullen

I underestimated O’Ceidigh’s apparent popularity and recognition, and he led the way in the fight for the third seat most of the way before Higgins’ transfer attractiveness became clear. As for the other two, their election was easily the most predictable thing about this race. National profile trumped everything else.

It’s difficult to really extrapolate any firm political trends from the results. Should we say that the NUI electorate doesn’t care about education reform because Luke Field got only 242 votes? Or that emigrant voting rights are clearly not on their radar because Barry Johnston only got 515? Or that they don’t care about mental health because Paul D’Alton only got 430?

No. Because what has happened here, as predicted, is that a significant proportion of the candidates were so similar, in overall policy and political outlook, that they ended up hopelessly diluting the vote between them all, insuring that so many of them would never properly challenge.

To provide an understanding of what I mean, I looked back on the losing candidates and decided to tabulate up the first preferences of those I would consider to be progressive-left. I was looking particularly at those who mentioned Seanad reform, 8th amendment repeal, gender equality and mental health issues as priorities or strong beliefs in their manifestos and literature.

I came up with 14 candidates – nearly half of the overall field, and there were others I could probably have put in there – and between them all they garnered over 10’000 first preference votes. That’s more than the 9’074 vote quota.

So if those 14 candidates were instead one candidate, things could be different. They could easily get elected, and on the first count too. Less candidates means less vote dilution. Less candidates means less voter confusion and voter apathy in the face of that stupidly long ballot paper. Less candidates means a more competitive election for everyone involved, instead of a crap-shoot for first preferences and transfers.

I don’t know how this could be accomplished. The Repeal the 8th crowd, GLEN, the USI, these kind of entities could come together and determine to run their own singular candidate maybe. But, ultimately, this won’t stop the usual football team worth of “You know, I might as well give it a go” candidates, who’ll all get less than a five hundred votes and lament their hard luck afterwards.

Of course, in the end NUI did get a progressive left leading Senator in Alice-Mary Higgins, so you can’t complain about the process too much. But it would be quite interesting if another Seanad vote came soon – looking less likely thanks to the Fine Gael leaderships rather embarrassing climb-down on Irish Water so they can cling desperately to power – so we could see how many of the 27 runners up would go again. Would the majority of the also-ran crowd have the common sense to realise their limited chances? Would there be a whole new batch standing by to replace them? If an election was held in the short-term, maybe, but give it five years of distancing, and we’ll be back again, with around 30 (or more) candidates, more than half of them preaching a liberal and reform-minded ideology, of which maybe one will be elected, maybe.

Still, my political and cultural ideology got a pretty fair deal with this Seanad I suppose, with Higgins and McDowell Senators I am reasonably happy with. I’m very unhappy with the other successful candidate, but what can you do? I guess we’ll be back in 2021. Or maybe a bit sooner.

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Ireland’s Wars: Leaving Wexford

Even as Camden was departing Dublin for good, Cornwallis was situating himself as the new man in charge, with an initial primary goal of bringing the rebellion to an end, that was to be expanded into a larger objective of settling the political problems in Ireland once that was done. Things were rocky right from the off: Cornwallis was determined to act differently to the incompetent and ineffective Camden, and largely ignored the established administration as he went about his business, not consulting the higher-ups of the ascendency on his actions and leaving the management of the Irish Commons to others. Predictably, that brought a great deal of anger from the same men who had so easily kept Camden under their thumb.

It got worse when it became clear that Cornwallis was in no way interested in a bloody conclusion to a rebellion that was already on its last legs, or so it seemed. Taking a leaf from Dundas, Cornwallis initiated a policy of offering terms in exchange for peaceful surrender, and that was a long way away from actions undertaken by many military commanders in Ireland before that point. Cornwallis was disgusted at the extent of the sectarian nature of reprisal and atrocity, and realised that he could not bring peace to the country if the cycle continued.

Lake, still in Wexford, seemingly thought little of all this, with the thousands of men under his command given largely free reign in Wexford in the days following Vinegar Hill and the taking of Wexford Town. Random killings, only some with the bare semblance of due process, house burnings, rapes and other atrocities were carried out by the victorious militias and yeomanry, with only the likes of Sir John Moore doing anything to rein the troops in. Lake, busy overseeing a raft of executions and preparing for what he must have hoped would be a triumphant first audience with Cornwallis, didn’t really care all that much. The rebellion looked like it had been crushed.

But in that, he was very much mistaken. There were still thousands of United Irishmen still organised, in arms and in the field, who were determined to carry on the fight. For some, that meant a flight to the mountains, bogs and woods to begin an elongated guerrilla struggle. For other, it meant a continuation of more regular tactics. The final tragic chapter of the initial 1798 Rebellion was about to unfold, as numerous columns of rebels undertook desperately long marches through Leinster and beyond, seeking to kick-start the rebellion again.

The first was under Father John Murphy who, the day after the defeat at Vinegar Hill, was leading 5’000 men away from the battlefield and into neighbouring Carlow, with the aim of swinging into the midlands of Kilkenny, then Laois. Small, but successful engagements at Goresbridge and Castlecomer followed, but no additional support appeared at any point in the long circular march, only yeomanry and militia biting at the larger forces heels. The column made it to Laois and then realised their effort was pointless, and determined to head back to their native Wexford. On the way there, they became separated in poor weather, leading to the capture and execution of Murphy, as noted in the last entry.

Under Miles Byrne, this group made contact with another large force of fleeing rebels who had escaped Vinegar Hill, under Anthony Perry, Edward Roche and Edward FitzGerald of Newpark. This column had already had their own engagements, attacking a yeomanry garrison in the small town of Hacketstown on the 25th of June, from where they were repulsed with loss, the rebels still unable to properly mount an attack on a well defended position.

From there, the focus was switched to the town of Carnew, where the rebels hoped to augment their largely diminished stock of weapons and powder. The rebel attack there went much the same way as Hacketstown, with the United party unable to make any headway against a well defended position. But, they did a gain a success in the process, when they successfully ambushed a cavalry detachment that had been pursuing them near Ballyeilis, leaving over 40 horsemen dead before the government retreated.

The government armies, amounting to tens of thousands still, were closing in all the while, seeking to manoeuvre around and trap this column of rebels, which might have numbered somewhere in the region of six or so thousand. Running out of options, and finding little to keep them going in Wexford, the fateful decision was taken to leave Wexford again, this time to head into Wicklow. After a brief, stalemated engagement at Ballygullen, where the United pike drove off cavalry but had to withdraw in the face of infantry attack, the remaining Wexford rebels in arms left their native county again.

By the 6th of July, this column had made camp at a stony position inside Wicklow called Whelp Rock, where it amalgamated with another force of rebels under Joseph Holt, who later claimed that over 13’000 men were mustered there. It was on Whelp Rock that the larger course of what to do was determined. A council of war, consisting of 25 leading members of what was left, debated and voted on two different options.

Holt argued forcefully that the combined rebel army should attack the Wicklow town of Newtownmountkennedy, capture its powder and artillery, move on and liberate Wicklow Town and then march on the capital itself. He argued that, with so much of the governments forces still in Wexford, the Wicklow targets and Dublin were largely undefended, and would prove to be much easier objectives than the places the rebels had tried to hit between Vinegar Hill and then.

He was opposed by Father Mogue Kearns, who argued instead that the army should attempt, once again, to get the rebellion going elsewhere, by marching from Wicklow into Kildare, there to join up with another rebel force at Timahoe, before continuing a march northward, possibly with the end goal of attacking the vital garrison at Athlone.

It is easy to look back and critique these plans with the benefit of hindsight, but in truth neither seems like a very viable option for success. Holt was arguing for a series of frontal assaults on garrisons and towns, not least Dublin, when the rebels had proved themselves incapable of carrying out such operations time and again, even against the smallest garrisons. It is likely that such attempts would have failed again, and even if they had succeeded, Holt seemed to be operating on the principle that Lake would just stay in Wexford and not intercept the rebels if they came in any way close to Dublin.

As for Kearns, his plan had already been tried by Murphy, and it hadn’t worked then. The rebellion had petered out in Kildare and Meath, and had never really gotten started outside of those areas, barring the brief combat in Ulster. The local people there wanted no part of the United actions: not because they did not sympathise with the rebel cause, but because they seemed to have no chance of success. Association with the United Irishmen now was risking a summary execution with the government invariably re-asserted control.

When the argument was put to a vote of those present, Kearns narrowly won out, perhaps because his clerical influence was stronger. Holt was bitterly disappointed by this result, and criticised the decision to the end of his days. Kearns, with Perry, essentially led the army from that point on. On the 9th of July, they packed up and left Whelp Rock, heading for the open country of Kildare.

What should the rebels have done? Exactly what others in Kildare had already done, and were still doing, which was to mass numbers in a defensible spot, and then negotiate a peaceful surrender on terms. Not with Lake, who could not be trusted with such matters, but Cornwallis, who so desired a final end to the fighting. The leadership of the rebels at Whelp Rock seem to have not really considered this option at all, and their continued resistance in the face of inevitable defeat fits into romantic narratives rather well. But it wasn’t practical, and simply increased the death toll of the rebellion for zero strategic gain. I’m sure the rebels, some of them anyway, really did believe that they could get the people to join their cause if they just kept going, and it would not be the last time that Irish republicans held that belief. But it was not true.

Soon enough, Kearns’ army had crossed into Kildare, going through the Curragh plains towards Timohoe. There, they would find United allies, but also disappointment.

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

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Serenity: “Something New” From Mal

“I’ve seen so many sides of you. I want to make sure I know who I’m dealing with.”

“I start fighting the war, I guarantee you’ll see something new.”

Mal, in Serenity, is a conflicting morass of difficult choices and moral ambiguity. He’s a bit of a different person to the man we last saw in “Objects In Space”: more desperate, and less inclined to play nice with everyone around him. Part of this was due to the soft reboot Joss Whedon needed to implement, but it is also a natural end result for the man who has lost so much: the war, his faith, and now Inara.

Mal’s morals have already been the subject of a post by me, way back in “The Train Job”. And while Mal wavers to and fro between extreme points throughout Serenity, the same basic individual with the same basic decency and sense of right and wrong, still exists, it’s just a bit gloomier. If Serenity is Mal’s story, it is the story of a man being pushed way too far by people and government entities who have no idea what they are actually messing with.

Mal’s actions in Serenity, from start to finish, show someone who isn’t sure what path he should be taking, demonstrating chivalrous heroism along with very questionable acts. But there remains a person with some very set guidelines, that he manages to mostly stay true to:

  1. Look after your crew.
  2. Look after your ship.
  3. Resist the “meddlesome”.

Let’s go through some of Mal’s actions in Serenity.

He’s antagonistic and aggressive towards Simon in his opening moments, as if the doctors very presence offends him, their relationship having broken down completely since the TV series, as discussed here. But there is a certain logic in Mal’s reasoning for including River in his criminal enterprises that can’t be denied, and in line with the portrait of Mal as being a good bit more desperate, on the “raggedy edge” than he previously has been – “if this job goes south, there may very well not be another” – it makes sense. What doesn’t is his vague references to the fact that the Tam siblings could be easily turned in, and his belligerent insistence that Simon should dare not “push me”. Our first look at Serenity’s Mal is thus that of a not very nice person, and certainly not someone who seems to have a strong set of morals he adheres too.

He makes sure that as many people on Lilac are saved inside the vault from the Reaver attack, but only after robbing them blind. Mal is a criminal through and through, and has no guilty conscience about his act of thievery, dismissing the idea that what he is doing “isn’t exactly soldiers work”. The Alliance took what he had during the fighting – “War’s long done, we’re all just folk now” – and any paladin-esque virtue went with it.

He shoots a young man captured by Reavers, when he had the option of just taking him along. Later, he decides not to shoot Jayne in somewhat similar circumstances, and even jokes about it afterwards. Here is the harder Mal, making an incredibly difficult choice in the heat of the moment, favouring the continued existence of his crew and his ships ability to fly over the life of a single individual he doesn’t know. It’s not the hardest choice when looked at with thought: the young man had his chance to escape alive, by getting inside the vault, and bringing him along on the mule might have resulted in the deaths of Mal, Zoe, Jayne and River. His joking reaction that he should have left Hayne behind shows the classic Mal, deflecting difficult thought with humour, but it comes back around to seriousness quickly enough: Mal explicitly rejecting the man he was during the war, the man who would never leave someone behind, because “maybe that’s why we lost”.

He dumps Simon and River off the ship without a second thought, but doesn’t hesitate to bring River back on-board when she is in need of protection. His angry relationship with Simon early on is evidence enough of Mal’s change in temperament, but he simply couldn’t leave River lying unconscious in that bar. “It’s not your way Mal”, Book will later pronounce grandly, and that’s absolutely correct. For all of his statements that Simon and River are not crew unless he “conjures” they are, he has a connection to River that he has never fully realised. Unlike the young man back on Lilac, he can’t just leave her behind.

He goes into dangerous situations like the rescue of Inara with gusto, then runs away and hides as soon as he can. Fanty and Mingo comment on Mal’s unpredictability, his decision to “run when you oughtta to fight, fight when you oughtta deal”, and Mal is a man caught between those two differing aspects: the man who wants to be the hero and do the heroic things, though maybe only when the risk is to himself and himself alone, and the man who knows that discretion is the better part of valour often enough. Mal is unequivocal later in the face of Inara’s prodding: When she posits that he came to the companion house “looking for a fight”, his answer is a pained “I came looking for you”. Inara is crew too, holding a special place that the captain barely wants to contemplate, and he could no more leave her to the fate ordained by the Operative than he could leave River.

Later still, there is an apparent crack in his psyche, as, pushed too far, he moves to desecrate his ship and becomes a tyrant to his crew, in service of a mission to get to Miranda and “get past this”. Here is the “something new” that Inara feared and that Mal warned about. He’s done being pushed around, seeing the Alliance that he simply wants to get away from come into his life and kill those he cares about over and over. And that manifests itself in a sudden showing of ruthlessness, a rejection of any kind of sentimentality, as he orders Serenity, his home and physical embodiment of his way of life, to be torn apart, abused and made to look like an inhumane wreck. When the crew complains, vehemently, he essentially threatens to kill them if they don’t do as they say. That change in Mal – now the man who fought the war, at least insofar as he shows himself as harder and more brutal than we have ever seen him before – is startling. And it’s all in the pursuit of keeping River safe, and simply finding out what it is about Miranda that is sending her and the Alliance over the edge.

The discovery of what happened on that planet turns Mal back from the gulfs of “something new”, and back to the traditional hero’s role, personified in his stirring speech to the crew, a more traditionally heroic rejection of the evil empire and a call to arms for them to follow him, more willingly than they did before. He decides to take the fight to the Alliance, flying at them and all of their power pell-mell, but makes sure to bring some serious back-up with him in the process. But this is not all blazing light against savage dark: the Reavers Mal goads into the battle kill many innocents, and when the Operative pointedly states this to Mal, the reaction is a simple “You have no idea how true that is”. The loss of Wash was punishment enough, but the members of the Alliance Navy dying in the battle with the Reavers are not Mal’s concern. If he is fighting the war, with a new belief replacing that which he once had in God –the belief that the people of Miranda need someone to speak for them – then the Alliance is once again the enemy, and an enemy needs to be fought with whatever resources are to hand, with ruthlessness.

Lastly, we are left with Mal back to the point he was before, having attained his bittersweet victory, lecturing River on what makes a ship like Serenity more than just metal and wires to the people who inhabit her. Inara’s back, the Tam siblings are crew again, and even with the loss of Wash and Book, Mal is more complete than he has been at any point in the film’s narrative. We’ve seen just a brief glimpse of that “something new”, but the Mal of Firefly is a surer prospect, one we are happy to see re-emerge.

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Review: Midnight Special

Midnight Special



There’s spooky happenings in the south, in Jeff Nichols’ latest.

Heading back to the cinema for the first time in a few weeks, myself and herself were faced with a choice: The Jungle Book, which has been critically celebrated but whose promotion left me numb, Eddie The Eagle, looking both inspiring and positive, but also sentimental and predictable, or…Midnight Special. That was the one we trumped for in the end, this supernatural mystery film with a stand-out cast and an interesting hook. I’m wasn’t super familiar with the work of director Jeff Nichols, but I knew he was an acclaimed story-teller: was Midnight Special a suitable introduction to him, or should my girlfriend and I gone with Eddie or Mowgli?

Roy Tomlin (Michael Shannon) abducts his eight-year-old son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) from a religious cult, who believe Alton’s otherworldly powers make him their saviour, in the face of a coming date of world-changing significance. Fleeing with childhood friend Lucas (Joel Edgarton) and Alton’s mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), Roy must deal with the violent manifestations of his son’s powers, while evading the agents of the cult and the US government, fronted by inquisitive NSA agent Paul Sevier (Adam Driver).

Speaking of my girlfriend (who has spent five wonderful years tolerating my ramblings about films) it was she who succinctly summed up Midnight Special better than I could. When I pondered, after the screening, just why the film was called “Midnight Special”, her response was simply “Because it was a stupid movie, that’s why.” And she’s right. Midnight Special is a stupid movie. And I don’t mean that in a uniformly derogatory way, because there is plenty to like about Midnight Special. But the film falls to pieces long before the credits roll, and allows a narrative stupidity to infect what could otherwise have been a fascinating paranormal enigma in the grandest sci-fi style of Spielberg. Midnight Special wants to be E.T, or Close Encounters, so, so badly, but in the end is more like a Tomorrowland or Lucy or, dare I say it, Interstellar.

And what I mean by that is that Midnight Special does great work in setting up what it needs to set-up: this strange child with strange powers, a desperate father trying to keep him safe, and lots of nefarious parties trying to track the two down. But when it comes to the last act, that critical last 30-40 minutes, Midnight Special, just doesn’t hold up. It has all the hallmarks of a film where serious thought was put into the basic premise and the characters and the plot beats for the first hour, before a muddled and ill-thought out ending was attached, one that struggles to be moving, engaging or in any way satisfying.

Let’s skip back a bit. We are introduced to the film’s trinity in the opening moments: father Roy, son Alton and friend Lucas. They are on the run, and we aren’t exactly sure why, or why Lucas is helping the other two. A succession of well-executed “Holy shit” moments follow, as the extent of Alton’s powers are vividly portrayed, most notably in a brief but stunning sequence at a highway gas station, when things turn from the disturbingly strange to the near-Biblical in scope. But all the while Nichols is keeping things at a very personal level, in the relationship between Roy and Alton, portrayed less through words and more through action. In order to work, the “Supernatural boy heading towards destiny” angle actually has to be subordinate to the “Father trying to protect his son” angle, and Midnight Special does that for much of its running time. That made it interesting, and engaging, and the emphasis on faith in large parts of the narrative, how characters express it and deal with it in regards Alton, was interesting as well.

And Nichols knows how to spin out a mystery too. Things smartly open in medias reis with no depictions of Alton’s actual abduction from the ranch, and move swiftly onwards. We get numerous hints as to Alton’s make-up, and Midnight Special lets it fester in the mind of the audience for an appropriate enough time. Is he some kind of scientific oddity, a mutant who can communicate and control electronic devices? Is he a superhero in the making (the film cleverly nodding towards Superman in the comics Alton reads, while Zod sits in the seat ahead of him)? Is he some sort of religious messiah character, here to save the righteous from a pre-ordained apocalypse? Is he from our planet? Midnight Special keeps you guessing, effectively, as you remain a few steps behind the actual characters for a long time.

Until you aren’t guessing anymore. I’ll talk about it in more detail down below, but, spoiler-free, the reveal is a clumsy and confusing one, that leaves the audience initially befuddled in the vague wording, and then utterly baffled at the conclusion, when Nichols takes the E.T/Close Encounters riff a bit too far in his pursuit of an ending that will be a suitable pay-off for what has come before. But it’s all so muddled: things are first explained in a deliberately imprecise manner, then in a too clear-cut manner, and then it’s a rush to the final scenes, to the money shots that seem too half-assed.

And of we’re talking flaws in structure, this is the first film in a while where I had a very definite sense that I was watching something that would be fully approved and certified by Blake Snyder’s academy of successful screenwriting. The beats of his now famous “beat sheet” are there for all to see, from the “Theme Stated” in the opening minutes to the “Catalyst” driving the plot into Act Two, “Bad Guys Close In” with the “ranch” assassins, “All Is Lost” at the beginning of third act and the contrasted “Opening/Final Image”. And there’s more where that came from. I’m not saying that a film following the beat sheet is an inherently bad story. It’s quite the opposite, in practise. But there are times when you really see the beats coming through on-screen, and it’s not a good thing to realise. Midnight Special was one of those films for me.

And maybe it was the adherence to the beat sheet formula that caused the fall-off in the character journeys that so stunts the final act. Leaving aside the primary relationship of Roy and Alton, many others of the cast seem truncated in most respects: Lucas is potentially fascinating, but finds himself caught bluntly stating his motivations and reasons for coming along on the journey (which are lazily convenient), Sarah is introduced a bit late and gets to be little more than fretful and regretful in equal measure, the ranch cult and its agents are frustratingly shallow, dropping out of the story very quickly when the narrative has no more need of them, and Adam Driver’s NSA agent seems more of a plot point crux than an actual living, breathing three dimensional being: a tool by which Nichols can manufacture a predictable “government tries to understand something it can’t understand” scene, and them a clumsy and all too convenient resolution to the same. Why he does what he does goes unexplained.


The cast is fine, Shannon in particular, but the material runs out for them.

You can’t really fault the actors when it comes to all that stuff either. Shannon, reuniting with Nichols again after such critically acclaimed performances in things like Take Shelter, really does radiate the kind of energy, concern, fear and desperation you would associate with a father trying to get his son the help he needs while dangerous forces close in for the kill. He doesn’t take much, but he doesn’t have to: his Roy is the very essence of a tight-lipped emotionally buried father figure, whose strength and morality comes through in actions. It’s a crime I was introduced to Shannon so late in his career, in his wonderful turn as the corrupt cop bad guy in Premium Rush, and he is one of the best working today. He’s matched by Lieberher on the other side of that relationship. It’s not the hardest role to play – Alton portrayed as a monotone and largely expressionless child – but it’s in the moments when this façade cracks that it becomes clear the kind of emotional range Lieberher brings to the part.

Everyone around them is doing decent work too, it’s just that the characters don’t go to interesting enough places. Edgerton has fast become Mr Reliable in Hollywood, and probably deserves more leading roles himself – he’s going to be doing that in the directors next film, Loving, out in November – while Dunst makes a welcome return to the big screen properly, having done little of note between her turn in 2011’s Melancholia and now. Adam Driver’s awkward Paul actually does have a bit of Kylo Ren in him, in his somewhat awkward and repressed words and actions, but he does enough by the end to banish thoughts of his more famous role by the end.

But the power of the ensemble – as whitewashed as any film I have seen recently, I feel it is worthwhile noting – can’t do anything when they have the kind of material that makes up the last act to work with. The intriguing mystery stops being intriguing, and rather than be a film that lets you come to your own conclusions and maintains a bit of a question mark, Midnight Special just can’t help itself. The final scenes are vague and ultimately fruitless attempts to deflect some of the crushing reality that comes sneaking in after the main resolution, with a vibe almost of setting up a sequel, which is not what I expected of this director.

Visually, it’s all quite good. Nichols, in line with long-time collaborator Adam Stone, crafts an intimate and up-close film, where the brief moments of CGI wizardry are decent accompaniments rather than distractions. The apocalyptic happenings that litter Midnight Special come as part of a very small-scale production in terms of visuals – I can’t have been the only one that thought of Chronicle – and that works really well in the first hour or so. They play around with alternating focus a lot, putting us firmly in the mind of Alton at critical moments, and are happy to let their principals do as much of the work as possible, favouring tight, enclosed camera work in cars and motel rooms, making Midnight Special seem less like a sci-fi drama and more like a runaway film on a very small budget ($18 million apparently, and I’m guessing a lot of that went to Shannon, Edgerton, Dunst and Driver). Case in point, a brilliant sequence when a tense car chase turns into a traffic jam, that, framed just right, manages to increase the tension exponentially (though what happens afterwards is not all that great).

I think Nichols wants you to feel like you are along for the ride with the Tomlin’s, and for much of the film you do feel just like that. But, along with the other failures of the third act, the jarring change in cinematography theme and tone in that portion of the film feels very odd, but does work to a limited extent, planting the audience in the middle of a very different environment to the one they have witnessed in the rest of the experience.

I rarely mention such things here, but I was also impressed by Midnight Special’s sound design, which alternated between lengthy sequences of quiet dialogue and limited score, to sudden, thundering bursts of noise, from squealing cars, gunshots, helicopters and the likes. Nichols seems to be a director who understands properly the way that sound can be utilised in film to promote tension, fright, nervousness and sudden anxiety, and Midnight Special has numerous examples of this (of course, it probably helped that the screen I saw the film in, 11 at Vue Liffey Valley, seemed to have its speaker system set-up for a 200-seat screen, instead of the comparatively tiny one I was in).

Spoiler discussion

Here’s my problems with the central resolution of Midnight Special’s mystery: there’s this strange and unpalatable combination of spelling somethings out too clearly, thus making the overall premise much less interesting, and then leaving other things way too vague. Alton is a member of a race of people(?) from another plane of existence connected to our own, just more advanced and with very different architecture. This comes up first in very, very vague terms before it is made far more clear in the conversation between Alton and Paul. But then, having opened the floodgates of detail, Midnight Special leaves you hanging on so many other things. So:

-Why do Alton’s eyes and hands glow? Is he human? Are the floating red eyes from the other plane human?

-Why does Alton need to hide from the sun? And how does it later “cure” him?

-If Alton is part of this other race, how did he wind up in our world? Was he born here? I assume so, but then how does he have all these powers?

-Is Roy a member of this other plane’s species too? If so, how did he get to our Earth? If not, what’s with the eye thing at the end?

-This eye thing that Alton does to the ranch members: what is the purpose of it? What is it he is trying to convey?

-Alton says the other plane has been watching us for a long time. Why didn’t they step in to help Alton before, if they are capable of bringing him over to their world?

Questions upon questions, a failure of the Inception Test. Midnight Special might have been better served by not attempting any kind of firm explanation at all – more Super 8 I guess, than E.T – but leaving nearly everything to the audience’s imagination. No weird buildings, no ghosts, just a disappearing child in a flash and a bang. That would have annoyed many I’m sure, but might have been a better way to keep the focus on the familial relationship between Roy, Alton and Sarah, that the film largely forgets in its closing moments in favour of bland spectacle.

Spoilers end

In the end then, thanks to a combination of narrative malaise towards the conclusion and characters that don’t get to see their journey’s end properly, Midnight Special is a disappointment. It isn’t a bad film really, but I think that it’s only two-thirds of a film, with the rest cooked up without the care and attention that was given to the other sections. The cast is generally quite strong, the script is fine and the visual direction is promising, But Midnight Special falls flat when it comes to its story which simply isn’t on the same level as the things it is trying so desperately to be like. I sense that Nichols is a good director, and I’d be perfectly willing to give him a shot again, maybe on something that wasn’t sci-fi. But Spielberg he ain’t. My girlfriend was right. Not a write off, and not the worst film I have seen this year (far from it) but not something i can fully recommended.


I think it’s a reference to a late night train service.

(All images are copyright of Warner Bros. Pictures).

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