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That They May Face the Rising Sun ★★★



Directed: Pat Collins

Cast: Barry Ward, Anna Bederke, Lalor Roddy

Released: London Film Festival 2023

As its opening credits ever so slowly begin to fade into view against the backdrop of a picturesque Irish sunrise, and accompanied by an excerpt of its gentle piano-based score, That They May Face the Rising Sun immediately adopts a calm and unhurried pace that goes on to become indicative of the film as a whole.

Adapted for the screen by writer Eamon Little and writer-director Pat Collins, That They May Face the Rising Sun is based on the final novel of the same name by acclaimed Irish novelist John McGahern. The film, set in the ’80s, follows Joe (Barry Ward) and Kate (Anna Bederke), a married couple who, after living in London for many years, have returned home to live and work in an Irish lakeside community near where Joe grew up. The film charts a year of their life, chronicling the couple’s encounters with their neighbours and the local community. But when Kate is presented with a chance to permanently relocate to London, the couple must decide whether or not to leave their tranquil life in Ireland behind once more.

If the film’s opening sunrise hadn’t already enamoured audiences with the visual appeal of its Irish setting, the remainder of That They May Face the Rising Sun – filmed in Mayo and Galway – certainly will, as it continues to showcase its astounding natural beauty throughout. The film lets it speak for itself, too, knowing when to refrain from using its score in favour of the Irish countryside’s wild birdsong and soft wind. This effortlessly captures the idyllic nature of Joe and Kate’s rural domestic setting, conveying the desirable sense of stillness that would be unattainable in an urban environment.

This much sought-after peacefulness is something that the film’s characters often discuss, with these conversations making up the majority of the film’s plot. However, this less structured approach to its storytelling might be challenging for some; the film even takes its time introducing its main narrative threads. But there’s plenty to appreciate for those who can adjust themselves to the more meandering pace. McGahern once said, “The ordinary fascinates me,” this fascination has undoubtedly been carried through this adaptation. Whether it’s Kate learning to weave a traditional basket or Joe admiring some farm-fresh honeycomb in the sunlight through his window, Collins ensures that life’s everyday, ordinary details are given the additional attention McGahern intended.

There’s plenty of McGahern to be seen in Joe, too, who partly mirrors the experiences of the famous novelist himself. As the film’s events unfold, Joe, a writer, continues to pen his latest novel. When one of his neighbours, Patrick (a brilliant Lalor Roddy), asks him about it, he admits, “Not much in the way of drama, more day-to-day stuff.” Patrick doesn’t seem so impressed with this description, suggesting, “Nothing like a rousing good tale; shouting and fighting and crying.” However, That They May Face the Rising Sun aligns far more with Joe’s stripped-back storytelling style. And while there’s undoubtedly an undeniable value in focusing on the more minor, seemingly insignificant details of rural life, the film might also have benefitted from at least a small indulgence in Patrick’s preference for a bit of drama.

Nevertheless, a series of thoughtful and understated performances help That They May Face the Rising Sun maintain a compelling quality across the gradually changing seasons of its story. Barry Ward delivers a confident and composed leading turn, affording Joe a genuine sense of empathy that seemingly extends to every single one of his neighbours. It’s a shame that his on-screen wife, Anna Bederke, isn’t given more to do.

Elsewhere, and of their many somewhat eccentric neighbours, the aforementioned Lalor Roddy, as local farmer Patrick, stands out most. While others have come and gone over the years, Patrick has remained, and time has seen him become increasingly isolated, taking its toll on the now cynical farmer. Roddy presents Patrick’s tough exterior while giving him an unmistakable vulnerability. This vulnerability is something present in many of Collin’s characters here; Brendan Conroy does fantastic work as another elderly neighbour, Bill, but it’s seen maybe nowhere more so than in Sean McGinley’s excellent performance as Johnny, an older man from the community hoping to return home after
working in England. His soft, deeply humane turn as a man simply wanting to feel at home again is just one of several tender performances that That They May Face the Rising Sun boasts an impressive abundance of.

These performances help to convey the film’s delicate portrait of rural Irish life, populating it with characters who are just as, if not more, intrinsic to the landscape of its countryside setting than the sweeping fields, trees and lakes that it physically consists of. Using the characters of this place and their wealth of life experiences, Collins has taken McGahern’s final novel and its poignant depiction of Irish living and thoughtfully translated it to the screen. By delivering this in such an understated fashion, Collins’ film has a unique, sedate quality that holds it back in some ways but ultimately gives it a distinctive appeal that asks its viewers to slow down and appreciate the little things in life.

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