The Silver Branch, Reviewed

The Silver Branch is a picture that speaks from, and to, the heart. In her introduction to the film, director Katrina Costello told the audience that this was a labour of love for all involved.

Such a statement is potentially true of all films, but it is rarely as evident, or as plain to see in every frame as in Costello’s poetic documentary on the farmer and poet Patrick McCormack: his life, personal philosophy, and so much more.

We open on an aerial view of the Burren, untouched and picturesque. Eagled-eyed viewers may notice a faint glimpse of rainclouds on the horizon, but they don’t spoil this postcard-perfect view. A jump cut brings us from the sky to the forest floor, with the flora and fauna of the surrounding woodlands.

The film starts as it goes on, with Patrick McCormack’s voiceover accompanying Costello’s nature photography. The narration is a guide through the film’s imagery, contextualising the scenes of the natural world through McCormack’s commentary.

McCormack begins with a brief biography. He talks about his struggles with formal education, which Costello dramatises. We watch as a young boy clambers up a hillside, sits by a stream and mulls over an algebra problem. Getting nowhere fast, he dumps his copy book in the water and bounces triumphantly off-screen.

Costello’s visuals never fail to augment McCormack’s voiceover and vice versa. McCormack’s poems, anecdotes, and musings are rendered in ever surprising and pleasing sequences.

Scenes featuring McCormack’s family resemble the perfect pastoral prints you only see on aprons and tea trays, and the natural world seems to follow the cues of McCormack’s narration to the letter: he mentions a fox, and presto.

For some time, we’re allowed to live in McCormack’s world. We’re locked into his perspective through his words, and through his descriptions we view the West of Ireland and its people as he does.

McCormack has a great respect for his father’s generation. Men who lived off the land, and to McCormack’s mind, had a deep connection with the natural world. We come face to face with one such man, John Joe Conway, throughout the film.

Conway is of that old stock, a bachelor and a cattle farmer who was friends with McCormack’s father. McCormack helps Conway around his farm and the two men swap stories, sing songs, and tell jokes to one another. These scenes are some of the film’s best.

Conway is a delightful screen presence full of wit and playfulness. More often than not his stories trail off into a gummy laughter that’s infectious and uplifting. Time spent on John Joe Conway’s farm convinces us all of the world view that McCormack lays out in his narration.

The complimentary sounds and visuals make the early stages of The Silver Branch hypnotic.

But you can’t have a rose garden without some rain. I was so caught up in the mesmerising movement of the film that I forgot all about those rainclouds from the opening sequence. They eventually open up and give the film a secondary focus.

McCormack speaks of plans by the Office of Public Works to build an interpretive centre in Mullaghmore in the early 1990s. He and other members of the local community opposed the building. In doing so they came under fire from he government, which labelled them “green fascists”, as well as their neighbours and friends.

It’s at this point in the film that the tone of McCormack’s narration shifts. There’s still reverence and devotion when he talks of the landscape and his part of the world, but there’s also a wistfulness there for friends with steadfast conviction and days and nights lost to worry.

Costello’s approach to framing McCormack’s battle over the interpretive centre is refreshing. Where some documentarians would dive into the archives for footage and line up talking heads to comment on the case, Costello instead keeps the focus on McCormack. This is his story first and foremost.

Archival footage is employed sparingly. McCormack’s appearance on The Late Late Show does more to show the toll the trial took on his youthful features than a dramatisation ever could. For the most part, we see the trial as highlights from a boxing match. McCormack is on the ropes, then he rallies, he’s knocked down but not out.

This is a novel means of framing the conflict, and one that allows Costello to flex her directorial muscles. She proves time and time again her ability to render an arresting sequence and can seemingly tackle any situation with a deft touch. The fact, that Costello also served as cinematographer for much of the film impresses all the more.

I saw The Silver Branch at a screening in Toronto. It’s a city that I visit frequently, and I am always surprised and a little disheartened by the expansion of concrete into the Greater Toronto Area. Fields, landmarks and old-style neighbourhoods get swallowed up by new office developments and condominiums.

It may well have been a happy accident but I found that the film’s talking points worked well in such a setting. Much of chatter from the audience in attendance suggested the same.

As The Silver Branch heads toward a close, our focus moves back to McCormack’s poetry. There is one extended sequence that features a particularly moving poem about John Joe Conway with an accompanying dramatisation that showcases the breadth and depth of Costello’s imagery.

Later, a would-be ending takes the universal elements of McCormack’s narration literally as the camera moves high above the Burren and into outer space. As with the boxing-match or the idyllic-family sequences, we’re never too far from the ground and the here and now.

Katrina Costello’s talent behind the camera, paired with Patrick McCormack’s strength of character, make for a winning combination. It’s impossible to resist the charms of The Silver Branch, to get caught up in his world, to feel the weight of his struggles and the relief of his triumphs. Enthralling from beginning to end.

The Silver Branch screened as part of the International Spectrum series at Hot Docs 2018.

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Luke Maxwell: Luke Maxwell is the host of the film review show, Viewfinder on 103.2 Dublin City FM. He also hosts The Movie Express Podcast, which you can find at www.movieexpress.org.

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