sun 03/03/2024

Calm with Horses review - a stirring debut | reviews, news & interviews

Calm with Horses review - a stirring debut

Calm with Horses review - a stirring debut

Stark Irish drama with a sympathetic heart

A most violent life: Barry Keoghan and Cosmo Jarvis in Calm with Horses

Nick Rowland marks his breakout from TV drama with this very competent feature, an adaptation of Colin Barrett’s short story.

Set in a bleak, rural Ireland, Cosmo Jarvis plays Arm, an ex-boxer with an estranged girlfriend, a non-verbal, autistic five-year-old son and the kinds of friends who get him into trouble. Chief among them is Dympna (Barry Keoghan, in a wholly chilling performance), the heir apparent to the local drug-dealing Devers clan. Dympna exploits Arm’s pugilism to add muscle to his verbal threats. Violence is the Devers’ modus operandi and Calm with Horses veers from bleak realism to near-gothic gore. 

Cinematographer Piers McGrail, makes excellent use of stark landscapes and austere interiors. Niamh Algar is outstanding as Ursula, who is ostracised by ignorant locals who blame her for her young son’s autism. There are shades of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and the Safdie brothers’ Good Time as it’s made clear from the opening voice-over by Arm that he’s not unscathed by neurological difference himself. 

For vulnerable people like Arm, desperate for friendship, it’s all too easy to fall victim to cleverer men who exploit their buried violence for their own purposes. Despite being manipulated into terrible acts, the audience never loses sympathy for Arm, through carefully placed scenes where his love for his son and their shared serenity in the company of horses, are demonstrated.

This is a promising debut by Rowland, the only flaw in his direction is an overuse of dramatic music, insistently signalling the emotional register. Sometimes it’s better to have confidence in the actors’ performance and allow the sound designer some space to work without a relentless score.

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