Director Mark O’Connor bucked the economic trend in 2012 when he arrived at the Galway Film Fleadh with two films to be screened and a manifesto in his pocket. King of the Travellers and Stalker were warmly received with the latter getting most of the attention for its more experimental approach. But it is King of the Travellers that has received a cinema release first and in some ways it is easy to see why. It has more of a conventional plot although the setting itself is unusual.
King of the Travellers tells the story of a feud between the Moorehouse and Powers, two travelling families. Central to all this is John Paul Moorehouse (John Connors) who believes that the Powers family murdered his father when he was a child. His desire for revenge puts him at odds with the head of the Moorehouse clan, his uncle Francis (Michael Collins) who urges peace. There is the further complication of his love for Winnie Powers (Carla Mc Glynn) and his wild half brother Mickey the Bags (Peter Coonan) who urges him on.
O’Connor wears his influences on sleeve with pride here. There are touches of The Godfather, On the Waterfront and in one of the early scenes Gangs of New York. This can be a dangerous game as you run the risk of calling attention to more acclaimed work. But he gets away with it as he grounds it within the authenticity of the traveller experience. But his main influence is Shakespearian, with Romeo & Juliet the main reference here. The first 30 or so minutes are when the film is at its best. The opening scene in a dark room is beautifully shot. Better again is the scene that follows along a motorway. In between there is the credit sequence with astonishing black and white archive footage of travellers set to The Furey's Óró Sé do Bheatha Bhaile. This is all very good and as previously said the referencing works within the context of the setting.
But after this excellent beginning some problems emerge. The first problem is the issue of non actors in the film. In the dedication for authenticity O’Connor has filled out all the smaller roles with travellers. The problem here is that when they have extended pieces of dialogue, it is flat and unconvincing and threatens to derail the film somewhat. The other main problem is the fact that the film is constricted by its adherence to narrative convention. This essentially means the last 30 minutes become rushed and predictable as the film heads in the obvious direction. What saves the film coming apart is the conviction of the main actors in their parts. Coonan, Collins and Mc Glynn all do very well in their roles with Coonan particularly taking the part and running with it. But it is the sheer force of nature that is John Connors which holds the film together. It is a big burden to carry a film in a first role but he succeeds admirably. I hope to see more of him in the future.
King of the Travellers is a problematic but ultimately decent film which never moves beyond its straightforward narrative. Yet there is a sense with this and Between the Canals that O’Connor is starting to find his cinematic voice. Even by the audacious title alone, Stalker should be an interesting film to see. It was heartening to see this film a couple of days after seeing Pilgrim Hill. If the ambition on show from both these directors carries through it could be an interesting next few years for Irish film.