The topic of mental illness is one which relatively few filmmakers treat with any great amount of respect or integrity. While there are notable exceptions, most films seem more than happy to depict people with mental health problems as being either wacky loop jobs to be made the subject of mockery or, worse again, psycho-killer types that are best avoided at all costs. In the majority of cases, films tend not to delve into the reasons behind such people’s actions, much less allow them to become characters that are any much more than the sum of whatever characterised version of a mental illness they happen to be afflicted by for the purpose of the film.
With that in mind, writer/director Terry McMahon’s latest film, Patrick’s Day, is a breath of fresh air. In it we meet Patrick (Mo Dunford), a young man who suffers from a variety of mental health problems as he embarks upon a romantic relationship with an enigmatic flight attendant named Karen (Catherine Walker) who, as it transpires, has mental health issues of her own, albeit ones which would be less obvious to an onlooker. Patrick’s fiercely protective mother (Kerry Fox) is unimpressed by the pair’s fledgling relationship and seeks out the help of a world weary cop (Philip Jackson) in order to bring an end to it – by any means necessary.
At a glance, Patrick’s mother could be perceived as a sort of wicked stepmother archetype as seen in the likes of Cinderella. However, such an interpretation of her character would be an uncharitable one. Her determination to drive Patrick and Karen apart is not indicative of any inherent cruelty or malice, but rather genuine love and a powerful maternal connection to her son. While her methods may seem cruel, they are born of her desire to protect Patrick, even if her protection is the last thing that he wants at this stage in his life. Kerry Fox plays the role wonderfully; here is a complex and challenging character who, while cast as a sort of villain to the piece, never feels like a truly bad person and is every bit as deserving of our sympathy as the star-crossed lovers who she opposes.
Ms Fox is but one excellent performer in what is a brilliant ensemble cast. No amount of praise is too great for Mo Dunford in the titular role. His performance is simply spellbinding as he conveys a character who is suffering at the hands of his mental health demons. Vitally though, Dunford never allows said mental health problems to define who Patrick is as a character. He is a charming and affable young man first and foremost and, as such, has much the same needs and desires of others in his demographic. The fact that he has mental health issues is something of a secondary consideration as far as he is concerned. The film makes a point to highlight that Patrick is a product of who he is, not what he is.
Rounding off Patrick’s Day‘s impressive cast is Philip Jackson as the officer of the law whom Patrick’s mother has turned to in her hour of need. His is a decidedly understated performance as a man who has seen too much grief in his life and turned to his own style of black as night humour to get by. Make no mistake though, he is not there as a source of comic relief, but rather as a grim reminder of how a harsh life can affect people, leaving behind little more than cynicism and a brand of wit found funny only by one.
The relationship between Patrick’s mother and her ‘hired gun’ is arguably every bit as interesting as that of Patrick and Karen, if not more so. Here are two people who have been left severely damaged by the great lengths that they have gone though in order to achieve what they felt was right. In a sense they are kindred spirits, both of whom are struggling with the increasingly morally ambiguous path that they have embarked upon. It is a testament to McMahon’s great writing and direction in that what is essentially a sub-plot manages be so compelling.
Patrick’s Day, it must be said, is not the easiest watch that a viewer will encounter as it becomes apparent quite early on in the film that a happy ending where everything works out for the best is highly unlikely. It is however, a finely crafted story with impressive characterisation and powerful themes which, while difficult at times, is an absolute triumph which will leave much for the audience to contemplate long after the closing credits have finished rolling.
Terry McMahon’s first feature film, Charlie Casanova, which chronicled the adventures of a charismatic sociopath, was a divisive one to say the very least. However, this time around few will be able to deny that Patrick’s Day is a superb piece of Irish cinema and one of the most important films of the year – unmissable.