Love and Savagery
- Directed by John N. Smith
- Written by Des Walsh
- Starring Allan Hawco and Sarah Greene
- Classification: NA
The best tales of star-crossed love never get old, but they often get rusty. Contemporary writers can deal with the rust by scraping it off, replacing the Montagues and Capulets with newer feuds and factions, like Sharks and Jets, or Palestinians and Israelis. Or, a more popular option, they can set their tale far enough into the past that the rust looks right at home and seems credible to a modern audience. That's the high hope of Love andSavagery , and its enthusiasm proves contagious - we root for this film.
Alas, while the tactic is sound, the execution isn't, at least not often enough to completely win us over.
The past is 1969, the place is Ballyclochan, an insular village on the west coast of Ireland. Enter the outsider, Michael the amateur geologist (Allan Hawco), who's come all the way from Newfoundland to study the ancient limestone formations. Quickly, the stars cross when the man of science encounters the woman of religion. Orphaned from a young age, Cathleen (Sarah Greene) has been adopted by the village and nudged along her chosen path to the convent. Well, almost chosen - the nunnery may be her true calling, but she's yet to don the habit.
Meeting by accident across a noisy pub, the two linger by design, taking long walks over fields steeped in pagan history. As they do, director John N. Smith seizes the chance to crank up the lyrical volume, regularly cutting away to shots of gulls swooping, of lambs bleating and, as amour's heart starts to beat, of surf pounding.
Seeming to take his cue from these visuals, and already keen to convert Cathleen from a love of religion to the religion of love, Michael proclaims, "Passion is a state of grace - it's almost holy." Yes, he tends to speak that way, being not just an amateur geologist but also an aspiring poet. So, in this triangulated battle among God and Love and Science, Art too enters the fray. But that's a problem with Des Walsh's script. The field is getting cluttered, and the geometry abstract.
Walsh has worked with Smith before, most effectively in The Boys of St. Vincent . This time, though, their shared journey comes with a transparently mapped-out itinerary. Consequently, what should be a chaotic free fall into a well of primal emotions - it is, after all, about love and savagery - more often feels like a programmed descent, a downward elevator ride with the floors all neatly numbered and checked off. So here's Michael on Level 3, getting the snot kicked out of him by the local toughs - "savage" tribesmen suspicious of this lusty interloper. And there's Cathleen on Level 2, still chaste in body but impure of thought, confused by the competing pull of a love as real as God's, and one more immediately potent. Then it's the ground floor for each of them, where his besotted insistence comes face to face, and lip to lip, with her pained indecision.
No fault can be found with the principals, especially Greene, who takes full advantage of her juicier role - his feet are on solid open ground; she's the one struck between a spiritual rock and a secular hard place. Still, the pair struggle to embody characters who tend to seem like scripted abstractions and clashing symbols. That is, they struggle until the climax, when something wonderful happens. Then, both the script and the performers take wing, and the scene soars, generating a wrenchingly nuanced sequence charged with raw power, so raw that it's hard to distinguish the selfless from the selfish, and even harder to know where love ends and savagery begins.
There are no simple dots to connect in that scene, and it's so vibrantly alive to make us almost forgive everything that too calculatingly came before. Almost.