Dublin is a city on the move in the opening sequence of The Castle, a Lithuanian-Irish co-production by director Lina Lužyte. The camera follows cars, pedestrians, and buses as they snake their way around the busy city streets.
The camera cuts frequently from pedestrians to traffic and back again, not focusing on any one thing. Eventually, it settles on a teenage girl talking excitedly to her mother as they ride the bus. The feeling is that this is but one of a thousand stories going on among the hustle and bustle.
The girl is Monika (Barbora Bareikyte), a singer on her way to perform with her mother at the Lithuanian Community Centre. Monika talks at her mother about how they should introduce themselves to the audience. Monika’s mother, Jolenta (Gabija Jaraminaite), downplays the whole thing. She isn’t entertaining her daughter’s dream of musical stardom even on this smallest of stages.
Jolenta is quick to sideline Monika’s dream of an exciting life because her own experience tells her to do so. Formally a professional pianist in Lithuania, she now works late nights and early mornings at a fish factory. At home, Jolenta and Monika care for Jolenta’s elderly mother (Jūratė Onaitytė) who suffers from dementia.
Jolenta is dedicated to looking after her mother but she also uses her as a way to fob off Monika. There is a scene early in the film with the three characters sitting at the kitchen table. Monika wants to talk about music. Jolenta pretends not to hear her.
Many sequences play out like this, crosstalk between generations, the eldest not comprehending, Jolenta not wanting to hear and Monika desperate to assert her position.
In most cases all three of them give up. In some cases, the camera does too, cutting to a new scenario before an argument has resolved. Most conversations don’t have a satisfactory conclusion. Interactions between the trio are a series of unanswered questions and long silences, with answers to even the simplest questions seeming hard to come by.
After performing at a funeral Monika is approached by a music producer. An elderly man with a leopard-skin trim on his suit jacket, he offers Monika and Jolenta an invitation to play at The Castle, which says the mysterious producer, is one of Ireland’s best music venues.
The car ride home plays out like the bus journey at the start of the film. Monika blabbers excitedly about the opportunity, and Jolenta rains on her parade. Jolenta gives away the family’s keyboard. For a moment Monika’s dream was closer than ever before. Now, it seems completely out of reach.
Jolenta has her reasons for giving up the keyboard. She wants to live her life as straight as possible. At the block of flats where they live everyone is running a hustle. Everyone who works at the factory steals fish, everyone except for Jolenta.
These characters from around the apartment block provide the only respite and social outlet for Monika, though Jolenta tries to discourage her from getting to know them in any meaningful way. The neighbourhood is predominantly matriarchal, working women who left their husbands behind to make better lives for themselves.
Male role models are all but absent from the picture and those that we do spend time with offer little guidance for Monika. One of their neighbours, Adam, sells cigarettes door-to-door and steals from clothes and bottle banks to make money. In one scene, Monika accompanies him to one such “bank job”. Her disappointment is amusing but Adam’s misplaced bravado also costs her the chance of getting her keyboard back.
Monika has a lonely life outside of her home. At school, her music studies prevent her from socialising, and the friends she does have treat her as a third wheel. These girls are cruel in the way they single Monika out because she is talented and they undermine her. Still, Monika’s pride prevents her from getting too downhearted.
Bareikyte’s performance is versatile for such a young actor. She is bubbly and upbeat but has internalised the harder, colder traits of her mother and snide peers. Sometimes, Monika’s reactions don’t make sense to us in the moment, then they are mirrored in something Jolenta or her grandmother says and it all makes sense. The burden of responsibility has trampled down her elders’ spirits. Lužyte’s script tests Monika to see if she will suffer the same fate.
The script never really goes Monika’s way but Bareikyte succeeds in making Monika sympathetic even when her actions are anything but. At points, The Castle feels cruel in how it treats most of its characters – they never get what they want and expectations are never met with a wholly happy end. However, with this approach any sliver of light shines much brighter, and getting less than what you expected becomes something still to be grateful for.
The Castle’s most dramatic moments are exchanges that Lužyte hangs on to for too long. When Monika lashes out at Jolenta and says something cruel and thoughtless in the way that only a young person can. In these instances, the camera holds a second or two longer than we’d like. The air is sucked out of the scene. Those couple of seconds are excruciating but the eventual cut rarely brings with it any great relief.
Instead, we, like Monika and Jolenta, find that nothing much changes outside the four walls of their apartment. Those hurt feelings and slowly dying dreams still hang in the air like so much stinking fish.
The Castle recently played at the Cork International Film Festival. A wide release is forthcoming.