Galway Film Fleadh 2023

Highlights from Ireland’s biggest film festival

by Brian Bowe

The 35th edition of the Galway Film Fleadh wrapped up on Sunday, July 16th, after another very strong outing. The festival programme this year boasted 34 Irish films, including 20 world premieres, seven Irish premieres, and 102 short films featuring the best of domestic and World cinema.

Laura Linney (Image: Wikimedia)
Laura Linney (Image: Wikimedia)

Kicking things off, The Miracle Club, fresh from its successful Tribeca World Premiere, opened up the six-day festival. Dublin director Thaddeus O’Sullivan, perhaps best remembered for his 1990 film December Bride, accrued a starry cast for this moving period piece about a group of women confronting their past on a pilgrimage to Lourdes. Laura Linney, Kathy Bates, Maggie Smith and Stephen Rea all give predictably strong performances. However, it was newcomer Agnes O’Casey – the great-granddaughter of playwright Seán O’Casey – who received most of the attention for her turn as Dolly.

The 28-year-old Lir Academy graduate took home the festival’s Bingham Ray New Talent award for her performance in Miracle Club as well as her leading turn in Lies We Tell. A contained psychological thriller, Lies We Tell follows an orphaned heiress (O’Casey) who must fight her guardian (David Wilmot) for her inheritance – and her life. Following its world premiere at the Fleadh, the film scooped the gong for Best Cinematography in an Irish Film on awards night. Backed by Fís Éireann/Screen Ireland, Lies We Tell will be released in cinemas across Ireland on October 13th.

Agnes O’Casey (Image: The Irish Times)

The festival’s big winner was Apocalypse Clown, which snagged Best Irish Film. Directed by George Kane – best known for his work on episodes of Inside No. 9, Wedding Season, and Time Wasters – the back comedy follows a troupe of down-on-their-luck clowns as they embark on a chaotic journey of self-discovery after a mysterious solar event plunges the world into anarchy – cue the apocalypse. The film’s fine, colourful cast – particularly Natalie Palamides as the twisted Funzo – rarely misses the comic high notes as the film gathers momentum to sweep audiences up into the mayhem. If clowns are your thing, Apocalypse Clown has surely got you covered – there’s a lot of them: a kids clown; a scary clown; an old-school Emmett Kelly-inspired clown, and, of course, a fancy-pants clown, highly-educated in the art of clowning.

Also worth mentioning among home-grown narrative cinema is Patricia Kelly’s debut feature Verdigris. Made in three weeks on a €50,000 budget without any support from national funders, the film tells the story of the unlikely friendship between a middle-aged, middle-class census enumerator (a wonderful Geraldine McAlinden) and a teenager who is slipping through society’s cracks (Maya O’Shea). Considering its tight budget and shooting window, Verdigris is a little miracle of a film, and it’s no wonder it picked up the award for Best Independent Film.

Celine Song

On the international front, the most highly anticipated film of the festival – as well as being one of the most highly anticipated films of the year, full stop – was Celine Song’s deeply humane Past Lives. It’s a love story that follows Nora and Hae Sung, two childhood friends, who are separated after Nora’s family emigrates from South Korea. Two decades later, they are reunited in New York for one fateful week as they confront destiny. Past Lives premiered at Sundance Film Festival earlier this year to stellar reviews, described by The Hollywood Reporter as “one of the year’s best films”. Song was in attendance at her debut feature’s Irish premiere, telling audiences: “I feel like a lot of the experience and skills I have from working in theatre for so long really prepared me for filmmaking. To be honest, as long as you understand story and character, you can do anything.” Past Lives comes to cinemas across the country on August 30th and will no doubt be an Oscar contender come awards season.

Song wasn’t the only special guest at the Fleadh. This year’s Masterclass series, an annual event which provides aspiring professionals and industry enthusiasts with a unique opportunity to learn from esteemed experts in their respective fields, welcomed BAFTA-nominated writer-director Carol Morley to the festival. Facilitated by award-winning Dublin writer Mary Kate O’Flanagan, Morley provided a captivating writer’s masterclass in which she catalogued her learning experiences while working across her rich filmography, including Out of Blue (2018), The Falling (2014), and thought-provoking documentaries Dreams of a Life (2011) and The Alcohol Years (2000). Morley’s most recent feature, Typist Artist Pirate King (2022), about the fascinating real-life story of artist Audrey Amiss, had its Irish premiere on July 15th at the Fleadh.

Matthew Modine (Image: Wikimedia)
Matthew Modine (Image: Wikimedia)

Supporting his latest movie, The Martini Shot (shot on location in Limerick), Hollywood actor Matthew Modine arrived at the festival ready to deliver a masterclass of his own until it was cancelled at the last minute. Due to the Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) strike, which came into effect on July 14th, Modine – the one-time SAG president hopeful – removed himself from any further promotional activities. It marks the first time the strike has had an effect on a film festival, with many now concerned about the potential impact it will have on upcoming A-list events such as the Venice and Toronto film festivals.

“The Fleadh is the first film festival in the world to be affected by the upcoming strike action,” Miriam Allen, the Fleadh’s chief executive, said. “We are very supportive of both the actors and the writers in their efforts to strike a fair deal with the major studios and streamers, and we believe there is no better way to show our solidarity with both SAG and the WGA than showing the wonderful work of their members on the screen.”

Being primarily an Irish focused festival, the industrial action popping off across the pond did little to slow down proceedings, though that didn’t stop real-life American stories coming to the fore. The Graceless Age: The Ballad of John Murry won the Best Irish Documentary award, written and directed by Sarah Share and produced by Nuala Cunningham, John Galway, Aeschylus Poulos. This is the story of the Mississippian musician John Murry, who was on the cusp of greatness after the release of his highly acclaimed album The Graceless Age (2013) when his world fell apart. This exquisite documentary documents his struggle with addiction and fame, tracing his journey from near death to redemption and a new zest for life and art.

Galway Film Fleadh logo (Image credit: Wikimedia)
Image credit: Wikimedia

2023 was a very strong year for documentaires all round, as the Fleadh closed with a delightful screening of Alison Ellwood’s Let the Canary Sing, a rock-doc chronicling Cyndi Lauper’s meteoric ascent to stardom and her profound impact that extends across her music, ever-evolving punk style. It was a great way to cap off another successful Fleadh.

And that’s a wrap, folks! Another fleadhbulous Film Fleadh in the history books. The 35th edition of the festival was the buzziest in a long time, and long may that buzz continue.