There’s a part of Ireland still untouched by the 21st Century, where the Celtic Tiger’s roar was only a distant echo. So Gerard Barrett’s feature debut Pilgrim Hill shows us. We follow the daily life of rural farmer Jimmy (Joe Mullins) as he goes about his pastoral chores – if it weren’t for the Oreos stacked on the local shop’s shelves or his unemployed young friend Tommy’s (Muiris Crowley) shiny Beamer, Pilgrim Hill could almost be set in the 1950s.
Eschewing the high drama of John B. Keane’s The Field, Barrett’s story takes a more real and reserved approach, as it slowly but steadily reveals the wearying effect the world takes of Jimmy. He cares for his cows like family, even though in his own words they are barely pets. He looks after his stroke-addled father – never seen but ever present – but wishes he didn’t have to. Even his rare trip to the pub is a miserable one; a single pint sipped alone so as not to go over the legal limit. The only real energy in Jimmy’s life comes from the rhythmic pulsing of the milking machine; the rest is silence.
The film is punctuated by a series of almost-to-camera interviews with Jimmy, whose shyly averted gaze says as much as his words. These are great insights into the character, who has never truly bloomed as a person, and they allow Mullins to really get into Jimmy’s skin, but one can’t help but wish there was a more inventive way Barrett might have opened up this character to us.
The steady pacing of the story is accompanied by tidy, withdrawn framing that keenly demonstrates the isolation of the character, marred by some unfortunate lapses of focal depth. Jimmy’s house is littered with items from the life he might have lived – a Rod Stewart mug and a pair of polka-dot purple underwear reveal a side to the man that we will never hear from his lips.
As life takes increasingly cruel tolls on Jimmy, Barrett’s film becomes a study of how much a man can take before he breaks down and cries. Does healing come with tears?
Unambitious but well executed, Barrett reveals himself a filmmaker to keep an eye on, while Mullins, a sometime theatre actor with no prior features under his belt, carries the weight of the film with a sincere, world-weary performance, taut with closeted emotion.
Pilgrim Hill is an honest portrayal of a fragment of Ireland we all too eagerly like to pretend we have left behind us.
(originally published at http://www.filmireland.net)