“Like falling in love, and then getting kicked in the face.” This quote, from the book of poems entitled “Love and Savagery” by Des Walsh, inspired a new film of the same name by John N. Smith. The year is 1969, the place is Ballyvaughan in Coiunty Claire, Ireland. Newfoundland resident Michael (Allan Hawco) is a good looking young man who is quite smart (he is a geologist), quite passionate (he really, really loves rocks), and quite deep (he writes poetry). He lands on the Irish coast in order to study the burren (rock formations), but he ends up studying the form of a young barmaid named Cathleen (Sarah Greene).
There are two problems here. First, Cathleen is about to enter a convent, so “none” is just about how much love ol’ Mikey-boy is going to get. Especially since, as a more rational-minded man, he doesn’t believe in Cathleen’s devotion to ancient religions. Michael finds grace and beauty in the tangible miracles of nature. Second, I didn’t buy for a second that this man would fall for this girl. For all of Michael’s charm, his wit, his looks, and his intelligence, why would he go for a rather pudgy barmaid with no personality to speak of, and no particular interests in life? We know exactly what she sees in him, but we never really discover what he sees in her. He never tells her, and the director never shows us. Perhaps the point here is that opposites attract; a fantastic guy can fall for a milquetoast girl if some unquantifiable chemistry is present.
Due to their differences, and to Cathleen’s future vocation, they soon agree not to be together. However, tension ratchets up as the non-courtship struggles to remain suppressed, with Michael holding back his feelings out of respect for Cathleen, and Cathleen holding back her feelings out of respect for her misplaced feelings of guilt. But they just can’t stay away from each other. There are no secrets in County Claire. Word travels fast in the small and very traditional town of Ballyvaughan. Michael isn’t the kind of guy to be told what (or who) he can or can’t do, and therefore he is soon in a mess of trouble. The townspeople discourage him from persuing Cathleen by beating the crap out of him. But as soon as he gives up, she gives in. Then the trouble really starts.
Well, long story short, Michael turns into a sniveling, helpless, needy, dolt. And really, fellas, we all ought to know that no woman really likes that very much.
It is hard to recommend a film when the central conceit (in this case the love between these two characters) feels disingenuous. However, “Love and Savagery” is actually a fairly strong film on several levels. The ancient Celtic landscape of County Claire is magnificently captured by cinematographer Pierre Letarte. It is also worth noting that both leads do quite believable jobs in their roles. We may not know why Michael loves Cathleen, but we do in fact believe that he does. As Cathleen, Sara Greene does a remarkable job portraying her conflicted emotions, and this is from a girl in her first role out of acting school (according to the director, who was present at the screening I attended). Secondary characters such as Cathleen’s uncle, and a local thug are memorable and layered (cast names unavailable). The film is tightly edited without much fat to it, except for perhaps during the last reel. A scene exists in which a friend of Michael’s is singing a soft love ballad in a Dublin bar. Fading to black at that point might have been a perfect ending, but the film adds an unnecessary coda that adds little of real importance.