Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage for the 9th Annual European Union Film Festival, which runs from November 14th to 27th at Toronto’s Royal Cinema, with additional editions of the festival taking place in Ottawa and Vancouver. For more information on the festival visit eutorontofilmfest.ca and follow the European Union Film Festival on Twitter at @EUFFToronto.
What a poetic sort is Martin Hayes, subject of Natural Grace, Art Ó Briain’s measured movie that uses the fiddler’s musings as the gateway to a reflection on the nature of tradition and its relation—beyond that evidenced in the name—to what the Irish call “trad”. He speaks of such things as “the simple shape of a melody”, artfully describing music’s uncanny ability to assume an almost physical force in its ability to move us. Such a subject is essential to any good music documentary: not merely a great player—and there’s no doubt, given his toe-tapping talents, that Hayes passes that test—but one also capable of communicating their passion, their love, their obsession, as integral to the very essence of who they are.
…were his film a short, perhaps, it might find the success for which it strives; as a feature, alas, it’s so burdened with filler it struggles to stay afloat.
That idea of music as a transcendental force is a sentiment solidified by Ó Briain’s visuals, which—to the tremendous tune of Hayes’ instrument—fade here and there to snow-laden landscapes as though swept away by the force of the music alone. Such scenes have a hint of Pat Collins, the Irish documentarian whose ability to say so much with landscape alone has made him one of the country’s most interesting, if under-heralded, emergent talents. It is but a hint, however, and Ó Briain’s not long betraying his relative inability to ascribe his aesthetic such an essential role: were his film a short, perhaps, it might find the success for which it strives; as a feature, alas, it’s so burdened with filler it struggles to stay afloat.
The appearance of onscreen captions that describe Hayes’ biography are the first prominent sign of trouble ahead: adorning images of such little resolution they bear an animated frame around them, these expository titles serve firstly to give the project the look of a computer-generated slideshow, secondly to cause us to wonder why Hayes doesn’t just give us these details himself. He is an engaging interviewee, so soft-spoken he seems almost to whisper, yet ferociously passionate nonetheless, and immensely intelligent to boot, speaking of the ties between folk music and Eastern philosophy in a conversational style that’s compelling to the last. Ó Briain’s direction, increasingly stale in his talking head sequences, may fail to suitably serve his subject, but he’s more than capable of holding his own.
“Can you lift it up out of the landscape and take it away?” wonders Hayes at one point, considering the relationship between art and its place of origin. A contemplative silence fills the film, until that beautiful bubble’s summarily popped by the peppy interjection of Ó Briain: “You can!”
Would that Hayes were enough, but such is the forcefulness of Ó Briain’s misjudged meanderings that they derail the project entirely, merits and all. “Can you lift it up out of the landscape and take it away?” wonders Hayes at one point, considering the relationship between art and its place of origin. A contemplative silence fills the film, until that beautiful bubble’s summarily popped by the peppy interjection of Ó Briain: “You can!” And yet, as much as this might be a case of the movie that could have been, Ó Briain isn’t quite the offender his more inane offerings might suggest: he has the sense, for instance to step back and observe in reverence as Hayes replaces a picture of his father on the wall, carefully adjusting its corners, presumably unaware he’s still being filmed.
Ó Briain also, essentially, allows the music to take centre stage, an obvious choice for a music documentary indeed, but one we ought to be thankful for anyway given the film’s formal failings elsewhere. These sequences are as close to redemption as the film could ever come: folk fan or not, one can’t but be borne aloft by the rhythm of that fiddle in this master craftsman’s hands. There’s a passage, proximal to the movie’s conclusion, in which Hayes hammers his tunes out backed by an orchestra, his movements and music growing increasingly frantic as his face seems only to soothe. It might be easy to quip that Ó Briain’s is a graceless offering indeed, but courtesy of Hayes, there’s plenty to go around.
[notification type=”star”]50/100 ~ MEDIOCRE. Natural Grace’s misjudged meanderings derail the project entirely. [/notification]