A Nightingale Falling
I have to feel for a film like this. It’s Irish. It’s from a small production studio. It has a small budget. It’s about the Irish Revolutionary Period, which has been one of academic focuses for a long time. It has so many things gnawing at my resolve before I even sit down in the theatre, my cinema going self desperately wanted this to be a film I’d like. After a fairly decent year for Irish cinema thus far, no matter what John Michael McDonough wants to claim, I had high hopes for this adaptation of a PJ Curtis novel, but was also aware of a small apprehension that it might not meet those expectations, made worse when I caught a glimpse of the production companies name: “Mixed Bag Media”. Now there’s a title that’s tempting fate, no?
Anxious matriarch May Collingwood (Tara Breathnach) and her wistful younger sister Tilly (Muireann Bird) live in rural Ireland, running their deceased parents failing estate at the height of the War of Independence. Amidst the continuing conflict, May discovers a badly wounded “Black and Tan” soldier on her land (Gerard McCarthy), whom she resolves to nurse back to health in secret, with unintended consequences for all concerned.
More in-depth discussion of the film, with spoilers, from here on out. For my shorter, non-spoiler, review, click here to go to The Write Club.
Unfortunately, that small apprehension of mine turned out to be bang on the money. Coming from a place where I may have been more sympathetic in my assessment than I should have been, it should mean more when I outline how disappointing A Nightingale Falling is, for a variety of reasons. I was prepared to treat this production with kid gloves, but even that could not save it from a legitimate critical appraisal.
The actual plot is a very maudlin tale, which seems to be taking inspiration from a wide variety of places. Misery, Downton Abbey and Ryan’s Daughter all spring to mind immediately, for plot points and setting details. That setting just happens to be in the middle of the Irish War of Independence, but precious little of actual substance is done with that backdrop. There is some brief and vague skulduggery about a farmhand with hidden guns for the IRA and some simplified depictions of Crown Forces operating in the countryside running around and shooting people for the fun of it. An historical titbit: not every soldier in Ireland at the time was a “Black and Tan”, no matter what A Nightingale Falling’s rather basic opening crawl and following visuals would like to suggest. I similarly found myself guffawing at the idea that “every home in Ireland” was terrified of the Black and Tans. This is forgivable aggrandisement of the war I suppose, but still a bit unnecessary – the Irish War of Independence was fought almost entirely in Dublin and Munster.
But that’s all unimportant really, what’s important is the flaws that really affect your viewing enjoyment. The elongated and fairly predictable central plot trundles along at a snail’s pace: it would seem that this is a narrative that was probably much better on paper, adapted too faithfully for the visual medium. Every act is stuttered and overly lengthy. A good 20 minutes or so could have been cut out of this film, to make it more palatable, a flaw worst in the final act when a succession of possible ending points come and go, like The Return Of The King without the higher production values (as an aside, I wonder if this being an indy film might not be a detriment in that sense, with no experienced studio heads telling creators when to draw the line).
The pacing is all off, and any kind of excitement that the film tries to conjure as a result is severely dampened. The depressing aspect of all of this – it isn’t just enough that May kills the soldier, or that Tilly gets pregnant or has to leave, or that Tilly dies and leaves the son behind, or that Jackie is killed or that May can’t bring herself to raise the baby herself, May has to (it is heavily implied) kill herself as well – doesn’t help A Nightingale Falling either, since the pile on of misery just makes you want the entire experience to be over as soon as possible, like a trip to the dentist. If the other aspects of the film – acting, writing, pacing etc – were of a higher standard, it is something you could get over. But as it is, A Nightingale Falling just doesn’t know when to stop.
Maybe we should go into it a bit more in detail. The initial set-up is fine, just a bit too long. We understand fast that May and Tilly are strangers in their own land to an extent, that May is the one trying to make sure everything doesn’t fall apart and that the estate is in financial trouble. The discovery of Captain Sheering is the catalyst for everything that comes after. Every sequence and scene is a tad too long and drawn out – lots of unnecessary travelling and establishing shots are the main culprit – but so far, so good.
Things start getting creepy fast, that Misery feel I mentioned earlier easy to get sucked in to. May, with some sort of undefined doomed romance in her past, quickly latches on to the unconscious soldier as some sort of romantic figure for herself, heedless of the fact that her hither-to withdrawn younger sister has the same idea (only with a better chance of making it work). Again, these sequences are not inherently bad, or even unengaging, they’re just too long. Every step in Sheering’s recovery has to be documented, we have to see him getting fed over and over, it’s all just dragged out so, so much. The Misery idea is a fine one, with the added kick of family squabbles, the execution could just do with a little bit tweaking (and editing).
A bit of engagement can be made with the journey of May, caught between emotional pulls over the wounded soldier, and susceptible to some pathetic delusions regarding the romantic possibilities between them. She is the driving force of the entire plot really, the character with the most agency, and her obsession with making something out of her connection with James, something that remains hidden for the entirety of the film, should be better presented if A Nightingale Falling is going to make the most out of its premise. I thought the May character was very well defined though, from her desperation over the state of the farm through her bitter sorrow at the way things turn out at the end. She seemed real, which is more than I can say for most of the other characters.
But it doesn’t change the predictability of the entire exercise though, and long before you’re thinking “love triangle”, it’s very obvious where things are going to go between the soldier and the younger, more restless, Collingwood sister, even if their whole relationship is barely formed onscreen. Tilly is the innocent, the shutaway who has become increasingly aware of both her attractiveness to the opposite sex – thank Jackie for that – and her own desire for love, sex and a life away from the humdrum existence she is currently trapped in. She’s still very naive and somewhat repressed about it though, and one of A Nightingale Falling’s best aspects is how it remains suitably unclear whether James is actually in love with her, or whether he was just after a brief sexual encounter and a chance to escape. Ultimately, Tilly is probably the most tragic figure in A Nightingale Falling, a girl who allowed her life to be destroyed by a succession of bad choices. However, she’s also one of the more under-written characters, and the performance of Bird was not great, her accent briefly changing during one scene, and her delivery generally underwhelming. It’s made look even worse next to Breathnack, who was easily the very best of the cast.
The characterisation for the two sisters is decent, but given the large amount of time spent on the two, this should not be, perhaps, too surprising. It is a good thing to see a film like this with a female focus (and leads) but one cannot help but wish for something a bit better than a turgid love story, which is almost Pearl Harbour-ish, just without the CGI or explosions. The character of James is the most poorly presented in the love triangle, with few lines, little visual direction to carry out and a somewhat surprising death at the end of the second act. We never really get to know him at all, or what kind of man he really is. Part of this is necessary, since the focus is primarily on the relationship between the two Collingwood sisters. But given the extreme length of the film relative to the amount of plot that it actually contained, I’m still surprised that James, so important as the catalyst for everything that happens in the film, is left so one dimensional.
A subplot about a father/son labourer family in the Collingwood’s employ passes by in similar fashion, with precious little actual impact. This was a shame, because I actually felt a bit more interested in them than the soldier, in a strange way. Tom, the father, is essentially the nicest character in the film, softly spoken, friendly and just pushing ahead despite all of the tragedy in his life. Jackie, the son, is less good, a brief dalliance with the local IRA seeming somewhat pointless in the larger sense of the film, with his brief interactions with Tilly more aimless teenage flirting and philosophising than anything else. The conclusion of these plots does tie in well with that of the Collingwood’s, showcasing the continued moral decay – necessary, but still a decay – of the May character, and defining a key difference between her and Tom, both similar in many ways, but reacting in a very different manner to their circumstances.
There’s also some time given to the Black and Tans, with one of their leaders getting to wax lyrical in one very odd scene around the midpoint, about how he’d like to own a house like the Collingwoods’ one day, a bizarre moment punctuated by a poor delivery. I don’t know if this was a hackneyed way of trying to make the “bad guys” look more human or just a section from the source material badly adapted. Either way, it was very strange. The Black and Tans were characterless goons in A Nightingale Falling, which is fine, since they are not the story, and the production team is clearly not interested in a more nuanced look at the War of Independence. But that being the case, you shouldn’t have scenes like the one with the Black and Tan officer at the Collingwood estate. Without additional exploration, depth or dialogue, then and in subsequent scenes, it’s pointless.
Back on the actual main plot, the love story between Tilly and James is terribly underdeveloped, just something that happens as she reads poetry to him and he stares at her from his bedside. A very awkward and underwhelming sex scene later, and they’re ready to get hitched and head to Argentina, much to May’s legitimate horror and disgust.
This leads to the main crux of the entire film, and presumably the source of the title. May decides to off James so that Tilly will have no reason to leave, since the spinster lifestyle on her own does not appeal. It isn’t very subtly done (or, at the very least, I twigged what had happened pretty much instantly) but is an interesting plot point to round out the second act. The problem of course, is that very last point.
Because A Nightingale Falling just keeps going and going after that, with a cavalcade of continuing tragedy and death, all stemming from May’s action. Everyone is left either miserable or in the grave by the end of A Nightingale Falling, and it takes a very long time, in a excruciating third act, for us to get there. A Nightingale Falling is never satisfied with itself until long past the point when it should have stopped, obsessed with dragging May down even further, showcasing exactly how her intense jealously and obsession-filled love for her sister has doomed so many people around her in different ways. The point is made too much. Way too much.
I won’t rehash it to a great extent. The very last shot of the film – connected to a pointless in medias res beginning – implies that May is about to take her own life, unable to handle the crushing reality of her current life (along with an amusingly blind dismissal of the Irish Civil War’s existence). It’s the last crushing moment in a long line of crushing moments. To repeat, my problem is not that A Nightingale Falling’s ending is downbeat. My problem is in how that was portrayed, in how the plot point moments of it were executed and in how it was all just drawn out. And out and out and out.
A Nightingale Falling is dominated by female characters, which is a good thing, and in Breathnack they have an actress doing a very good job with her character. I have my issues with some aspects of the Tilly character, but I’m happy to see an Irish film set in this era have such a female focus, even if it falls all too easily into the bounds of maudlin romance. Tilly lacks a little agency, a problem May does not share, but overall I’m satisfied with the way that A Nightingale Falling approaches its female characters. Again, it’s just the details of the execution that are a problem.
Theme wise, A Nightingale Falling has plenty of depth in parts – it would want to, given the length – and some things worth discussing. For me, the clearest theme was one of dichotomy between fate (that is, pre-destination) and control of one’s own life, a contrast defined by the two Collingwood sisters. May seeks control in all things: over the estate and it’s failing fortunes, over her sister and her want away aspirations and over the wounded soldier she finds, ultimately stopping him from leaving when he wants to. When the grand designs she has planned go awry, she herself seems to struggle with a degree of mental instability. The failing farm is one thing, but the romance between Tilly and James is another, pushing May into an alcohol fuelled depression, lacking control over her life and the lives around here. Only briefly is this desire for control shown up as the malicious thing that it really is, until it takes its ultimate form when May murders James secretly. This is the ultimate act of attempted control, but fails: it only creates more chaos, and leads both sisters down an even darker road.
Fate is the other side of the coin, the idea that we are unable to have any real personal control over own lives, something that Tilly ascribes to in the end. She falls in love with James and plans to run away with him, trusting that the rashness of the decision will have no ill consequences. She does not think that she can have any kind of future with the Jackie character, as the universe has simply decided that it is not possible at that moment in time. Everything that happens, the fortune and misfortune, come from a place where she cannot alter decisions, and with her ignorance of May’s actions, she continues to believe this, perhaps right up to the moment when she see’s Jackie die, with May’s partial collusion.
The message of A Nightingale Falling on that score would seem to be that fate is a tricky thing, and perhaps false. There is action and reaction, with the latter often being unintended and hard to comprehend before it happens. May has the most agency and attempted control in A Nightingale Falling, but she cannot, any more than Tilly, keep a handle on the consequences of her actions.
I suppose that any film set during the Irish Revolutionary Period has to have a discussion on the nature of freedom. The conflict between the IRA and the Black and Tans (sigh) has little: even the local IRA commander doesn’t have any political rhetoric in his few scenes. Discussion of freedom comes, again, from the Collingwood sisters. Both of them want a different kind of freedom. May wants self sufficiency, peace and quiet, freedom from financial failure and self-doubt, from the wolves at the door. Tilly wants freedom in a realer sense: freedom from a dull, pointless spinsterhood. Usually a film like this would try and draw a contrast between these personal struggles and the political ones happening all around – see The Wind That Shakes The Barley as an example – but A Nightingale Falling doesn’t really go for that. People want freedom in A Nightingale Falling, but no one really gets it. May is trapped and alone, Tilly dies in the act of trying to gain some freedom, and James is murdered as a virtual prisoner.
Finally, I suppose that there is love. The sisters share a love for each other, with May perhaps being the more intense. She can’t imagine a life absent both her parents and Tilly, and strives to keep what she has left intact. This kind of negative, self-destructing love inevitably brings terrible consequences. Tilly loves her sister too, but is perhaps not worldly enough to realise that this connection is more important than any other, disregarding it easily enough when it comes right down to it. She has James, a lust-filled fiery passion, as well as the affections of Jackie to ponder over. This kind of intoxicating affection masquerades as love, but is mostly shallow when examined more closely. The relationship with James is probably doomed realistically, and Tilly decides to forgo any affection she has for Jackie. Both men wind up dead, with May involved intimately in both events, her own brand of extreme love blinding her to morality or less fatal choices.
So, to conclusions. I really wanted to like this film, but have been left distinctly underwhelmed due to certain deficiencies, most notably in pacing, the overuse of certain visual shots, the badly placed score and the paucity in acting talent in much of the cast. There are things you can excuse due to a low budget, and there are things that you cannot. This is a shame, and for this film in particular, I take no pleasure in saying so.
A Nightingale Falling strikes me as the kind of project that would have been better suited as a two part TV miniseries than a two hour film, with the big screen medium irreconcilable to the various traits of this movie. I can see something like this showing up on RTE on a Sunday evening, and I wonder if the production team considered or attempted this avenue. But in taking the riskier approach of the cinema, flaws have appeared that could have been remedied otherwise.
It seems to me that the production team were too much in love with the source material, their own camerawork and the score they had acquired when they should have been worried about other details: editing, the script, and a more satisfying conclusion. As it is, A Nightingale Falling is a frustrating film, where the whole is less than the sum of its parts.
(All images are copyright of Mixed Bag Media).