‘Making your way in the world today, takes everything you've got’
It was bizarrely appropriate that the advertisements before Pilgrim Hill showed a certain fast food chain’s ad of the happy Irish farmer permanently basked in sunshine as he made his way around his forensically clean farm. Nothing was out of place and it quite frankly looked like the best job in the world. Weirdly there are no sign of any animals either; presumably all happily gone to slaughter to help feed us the wonderful burgers. The first line of the song used (from Cheers sacrilegiously) is more suitable to Gerard Barrett’s debut feature than anything an advertisement can think up. The line neatly sums up the predicament facing Jimmy Walsh (Joe Mullins) in the quietly riveting Pilgrim Hill. We meet Jimmy at a time in his life where things aren’t going so well. His days are spent relentlessly doing the farm work, be it the mending of fences or the milking of cows. These are long and solitary days with an ailing and unseen father the reward at the end of them. Jimmy is lonely, desperately so and things need to change.
The power in Barrett’s film resides in the rhythmic quietness. In the repetitive sounds of the machines that milk the cows. In the stirring of the many cups of tea that punctuate the day. In the sitting at the bar having the quietest of pints. There is practically no music for the first hour of the film which gives the film a claustrophobic feel and hermetically seals Jimmy into his existence. But that seal is broken by a visit from a local health inspector which leaves Jimmy facing an uncertain future: should he listen to his only friend Tommy (Muiris Crowley) and think about a life away from farming or resign himself to repeating the generation before and stay with the only thing he knows for the rest of his life.
The only out seems to be Jimmy’s straight to camera discussions which act as a confessional. This is where he lets out all the emotions and fears about his past and present. There are some heartbreaking words here but for me this is where the film fell down a little. They felt possibly tacked on to pad out the running time to feature length. Yes the subjects that Jimmy speaks about are important to the character but I didn’t need it as exposition. I wanted a visual representation of those words. This is a real pity as I fell perfectly into the rhythm of the film and it was the straight to camera moments that pulled me out of it. There is magic in Barrett’s roving camera on the farm but the magic slips when the story stops. Joe Mullins is a revelation in the main role. He carries the weight of his loneliness in that walk of his, in the glances at others and at himself in the mirror. Those eyes tell you all you need to know about his regret and isolation which makes the straight to camera pieces unnecessary.
Pilgrim Hill is a very good debut film. With a reported budget of €4,500 it is quite frankly astonishing. It is also a film of our times, looking at a country bereft of direction. It captures the feeling that farming was one of our indigenous industries ignored while we chased the housing dream. Now that the hangover has come, this is what is left: a broken industry full of broken men. There is an authenticity here; you instantly know that both Barrett and Mullins know the terrain well. They have carved out a memorable and low key film with a great central character at the heart of it. Alas, is not the masterpiece that some have said. But there is more than enough here to suggest that Barrett could be a significant Irish filmmaker for years to come.