Five years in the making, there was pressure on the crew behind the local film No Party For Billy Burns to deliver, and judging by the reaction at the packed screening of the Odeon on Thursday night, deliver it did. The eagerness from the audience, many of whom were neighbours, friends and acquaintances of writer-director Padraig Conaty and star Kevin McGahern, to enjoy it probably only served to add to the pressure. However viewed from the dispassionate cold eye of a blow-in, Billy Burns is a joyously great film.
Billy Burns (Kevin) is an innocent, cowboy obsessed farmhand who quietly survives in a rural town populated mainly by gruff males with booze-centred lives, and a despondent outlook echoing the suffocating grey skies above. Chief amongst the menacing local lads is mechanic Ciarán. Played wonderfully by the talented Charlie McGuinness, the town’s tortured alpha male isn’t all bad, as he occasionally shields Billy from his mean-spirited latchikos.
Having lost his parents at a tender age, big hearted Billy retreats into his imagination, harbouring dreams of becoming a cowboy, and using his grandfather’s ancient wireless to transmit comedic snippets to a radio listenership which presumably doesn’t exist. A bit-part in a drunken street brawl and the promise of romance inject excitement into an otherwise stiflingly uneventful existence.
For this viewer the film’s overall tone as a comedic drama occasionally stumbled, and without giving anything away, aspects of the wonderful climax of the film could have been flagged more emphatically earlier to bring a little more coherence. The paucity of female characters jarred a little too. Those few criticisms are overwhelmingly outweighed by the positives. Quite simply it’s a beautiful film, brimming with heart.
McGahern delivers an exquisitely judged performance, bringing life to a figure who in less capable hands could have lacked depth. Instead we were treated to a masterful portrayal of a memorable character. McGuinness excelled equally as the troubled bowsie Ciarán. The complex figure is skilfully realised by an actor who looked at home on the big screen.
Space prohibits an exhaustive run through of the sparkling cast, however Sonya O’Donoghue deserves mention too for her portrayal of a girl aware of the grim realities of her unhealthy relationship, and struggling to summon the courage to make the break, while Shane Connaughton delights in his role as the hard-hearted granddad.
Also starring in Billy Burns is the under-appreciated beauty of the sodden green drumlins and lakes of Arvagh, Gowna and North Longford, maybe the first time these locations have appeared on a cinema screen.
Conaty’s directing prowess came as little surprise but his writing is superb, the dialogue and colloquialisms, particularly in the Arvagh pub scenes, is note perfect.
The film demands a wider audience, and Conaty has entered it into a number of international film festivals. While Billy Burn’s locations, characters and themes will be readily embraced by Irish audiences, the skill with which the film was crafted by Conaty and the resourceful team ensure that it will resonate with international viewers, given the opportunity. It deserves to be much more than a midlands cult classic.
More dates have been added to Odeon Cavan Cinema: Thursday, January 11 and the following Thursday 18th at 8pm. Tickets are available ONLY from Multisound Cavan - 049 436 131.