The churning Atlantic Ocean off the northwestern Irish coast in God’s Creatures becomes the backdrop for a classical tragedy of violence erased by a tightknit community until it breaks through to shatter the sacred bond between a mother and her son. In their first collaboration, The Fits, co-directors Saela Davis and Anna Rose Holmer plunged us into a Cincinnati projects recreation center as if in a dream to tell an audaciously elliptical coming-of-age story of Black female adolescence. Their new project is equally immersive and culturally specific, and even if the drama is a touch too sluggish about tightening its grip, the emotional power of the final act is considerable.
The fishing village setting — unnamed, just as the time is left vague — is a lonely place of rocky shores and dark, treacherous waters that claim a life near the start, leaving one more woman a widow in what seems a long line stretching back into the past and forward into the future.
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The men go out in currachs, light wooden boats that offer scant protection from the elements, to tend to the oyster beds or fish for salmon. Under the supervision of Aileen O’Hara (Emily Watson), the women work the conveyor belts at a seafood processing plant across the harbor from the fishermen’s dock, their camaraderie reaffirmed during cigarette breaks outside, usually in cold wind or under drizzling rain.
The sad occasion of a funeral becomes one of joy when Aileen’s beloved son Brian (Paul Mescal) returns home unannounced after several years in Australia, cut off from the family. The chill between him and his father, Con (Declan Conlon), suggests the past violence that drove Brian away from a place where people either seem to stay forever or leave and never return. But for reasons Brian doesn’t care to share, he’s back to turn the family’s struggling oyster farm around. Cheerful and hardy, he’s even determined to break through the fog of dementia that silenced his grandfather, Paddy (Lalor Roddy), years ago.
Working from an original screenplay by Shane Crowley, Davis and Holmer observe with a quasi-documentarian gaze the rugged work of harvesting oysters, racked on steel trestles that are submerged during high tide. In that sense the film nods back to a lineage that began with Robert J. Flaherty’s Man of Aran. The fascination with the quotidian extends to all aspects of village life, from the long hours of sorting and packing at the seafood plant to the relaxed sense of community in the local pub, where a spontaneous song commands hushed attention.
The singer of that plaintive ballad is Sarah (Aisling Franciosi), a young woman with deep ties to the O’Hara family, whose own parents have died, leaving her alone in an echoing house. She’s barely extricated herself from a pesky on-off relationship when former teenage flame Brian starts flirting with her at the pub during a night out with his mother. The next thing Aileen knows is that Sarah has filed a sexual assault claim, accusing Brian of following her home and raping her. That charge against Aileen’s golden boy seems inconceivable to her, leaving her with a terrible moral dilemma.
Crowley’s script, based on a story he developed with producer Fodhla Cronin O’Reilly, keeps details of the night’s events to a minimum, and none of the alleged violence is shown. Sarah also remains absent for a pivotal stretch of the drama, failing to show up for work at the seafood plant for almost two weeks without notifying the foreman.
Meanwhile, Aileen lies to the police about Brian’s whereabouts on the night in question, her natural maternal protective instinct being to provide an alibi. But as she witnesses Sarah being ostracized by a community accustomed to banding together and refusing to address violence, Aileen is nagged by doubts. Brian’s tough sister Erin (Toni O’Rourke) is more clear-eyed than their mother about what the men in the family are capable of, her anger fueled by her close friendship with Sarah.
As they did in The Fits, which was directed by Holmer and co-written and edited by Davis, the filmmakers reap atmospheric benefits from an unconventional score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. Here, the atonal strings and pipes seem to conjure ghosts, with echoes of elemental and intergenerational human violence, and the jarring music is mixed with a murky soundscape to foster a growing sense of dread.
The thick accents and mumbling delivery often muddy the dialogue, which might make it advisable for A24 to subtitle the release outside Ireland and the U.K. And the tendency of Crowley’s screenplay to leave much unspoken inhibits the drama in some ways, with the characters’ histories remaining frustratingly sketchy. But the evocative sense of a place frozen in time and the raw feelings behind the family dynamic ultimately carry the film, even if it’s a downer that won’t be an easy sell.
The performances are strong, but never showy. Rising star Mescal (The Lost Daughter) continues to impress, maintaining Brian’s easygoing charm enough to keep audiences — and other characters — guessing about his guilt. And Watson is deeply affecting, increasingly so as Aileen’s feelings shift from encroaching shame through indignation to bitter resolve in a climax that approaches mythic dimensions. Her moving final scene with Franciosi (The Nightingale), in which Sarah reveals the resilience beneath her trauma, gives the film an emotional payoff that makes it worth the wait.