Irish filmmaker Pat Collins adapts author John McGahern’s last novel, a sad, gentle look at rural Irish life in the 1970s, a place where being an outsider can take many forms.
At one point in Pat Collins’ gentle-paced film, a character asks a writer what his latest book is about. “Not much action,” comes the reply, “more day-to-day stuff.” This statement perfectly encapsulates That They May Face the Rising Sun, which observes the passing of a year in a rural Irish community in the 1970s, based on the novel by John McGahern.
That’s not to say that nothing happens; in fact, a lot does. But these are the kind of things that happen to most people in the course of a year – family disagreements, marriage, death, work worries – and it’s a reminder that, even without soap-opera-style histrionics, life’s ebb and flow inevitably leaves its mark on us, on some deeper than others.
The rural home of Joe and Kate Ruttledge (Barry Ward, Anna Bederke) is the centre point of the film. The couple returned from England five years previously, to settle in the village in which Joe grew up; he is a writer, she an artist. Their days are gently punctuated by visits from neighbours bringing the latest news, offering a ride to the shop or going to help – with the rest of the community – as a harvest is gathered. The absence of phones and television sets may seem surprising, but for many remote Irish communities these things came to them late and, until their arrival, life had not changed much in decades. That They May Face the Rising Sun captures this ambience and the steady cycle of day-to-day life, together with its familiar characters.
There is also a lot which is unsaid, which lurks beneath the surface, and which Collins invites his audience to observe for themselves. Everyone seems to understand why Johnny (Sean McGinley) went to England, but nobody talks about it. He keeps up the pretence of having a good life when he returns for his visits home, as is customary, but something feels wrong.
That They May Face the Rising Sun never attempts to resolve everyone’s issues, but merely acknowledges that farming, the seasons, life, all continue day after day, and we deal with everything the best we can.
It’s a beautiful film visually, but also emotionally, and its gentleness also hides great sadness.