By Mark Laherty
Dublin Oldschool is a state-of-the-nation movie by Dave Tynan and Emmet Kirwan. Apart from a handful of shorts, Kirwan is mainly known for writing and starring in the original theatre version of this story. It picked up some prestige and was chosen by the Irish Film Board.
So, what’s it like? Disorienting, for one thing. It’s mainly preoccupied with the meanderings of a drug addict in Dublin as he wanders between subplots. His mate’s house gets raided by the Gardaí. He runs into a woman he used to go out with. All loose, plot-light stuff. The only aspect of the story that feels like it matters more than the general impression is the protagonist (again played by Kirwan) finding and reconnecting with his disappeared brother, who’s much more addled with addiction.
Bafflingly, the trailers sold this one as some sort of knock-off Inbetweeners-style comedy. It is not at all that. There aren’t even that many jokes and what few there are seem more for the sake of authentic Dublin dialogue. No, this is a movie more characterised by the main character falling just short of looking straight in the camera and stating the themes. Those themes include drugs, a scathing indictment of society, and a speech or two about how everyone is caught in the river of time and trying to swim upstream back to the past. More than anything, there’s a sense that this movie wants to be subversive. To paraphrase its soliloquy-happy hero, it wants to hit you in the face like a hot gush of piss.
If you step back, you can see the typical screenplay rules are being followed. But, the film is trying its damnedest to make sure you hardly notice. The brother, played by Ian Lloyd Anderson (Love/Hate), describes how he used to feel like his whole life was “wading through Campbell’s soup.” That’s also an apt descriptor for the pacing of this film. So, it’s slow-paced and disorienting because that’s what drugs do. The editing and cinematography captures it well and it’s arguably necessary for a story from the point of view of someone who’s continually off his face. But, even where the execution has some original ideas, it’s a smidge obvious. It doesn’t feel like leftovers slammed in the microwave but it does feel like a familiar recipe.
There’s no two ways about it: the influence of Trainspotting is difficult to ignore in this one. Comparisons to that forebear were always going to be unavoidable but Oldschool doesn’t come out of the comparison looking pretty or original. The movie is punctuated by bursts of narration from Kirwan which are less exposition, more fits of slam poetry. Your mileage really will vary on that aspect of the film. Much of the narration is okay. Other parts don’t stick the landing. Other critics seemed to like it more. Kirwan’s delivery is consistently sincere, at least.
It’s true, to be fair, that any movie in a similar style or genre to another will have lookalike segments in the first act, just while all the pieces are being put in place before the new ideas come into play. That is true of the Dublin Oldschool and Trainspotting comparison. It would be unfair to bring this up or harp on it so much if it weren’t so overt. There’s even a sequence at the start where the characters run down the street away from the guards while the licensed song bangs away, exactly like the start of Trainspotting. When Kirwan spots someone he fancies in a nightclub, it feels far too close to a shot-for-shot remake. There are almost no directly comparable plot beats later but the stylistic similarities never go away. If it’s any consolation, it also borrows a lot from literary and theatrical forebears, most notably Ulysses – this is a movie about some guy wandering around Dublin, after all.
That romantic interest (Seána Kerslake) isn’t much to write home about, by the way. Kerslake does great work with a role that has some psychological meat on the bones. But, while there are some ideas knocking around in their scenes together, it’s not given the time to develop. That’s essentially because it’s not a story about them. It’s a story about the two brothers. Trippy, dream-like pacing is one thing but trying to shove too much into too slight a subplot is quite another. Their last scene together is a good one but it would have been better with a more coherent build-up. Tellingly, Kerslake leaves the picture long before the rest of the plot starts wrapping up. That’s because her role isn’t all that important. It’s one ball too many in the air.
The movie is easily at its best when it sets the two brothers against each other and just lets them act their eyeballs out. In a movie that only does an okay job of being about Ireland or about Dublin, it shouldn’t be too surprising that its greatest success comes when it throws its weight behind a story about people rather than ideas.
Dublin Oldschool is, to be clear, not a bad movie. It has ideas that it wants to talk about and it teases out those ideas slowly and steadily. It has themes. It is good. But, it is not new or shocking or like piss in your face like it clearly believes itself to be. Apart from all the ketamine, this feels like the sort of thing you’d be expected to study for the Leaving Cert. Most of the roads it goes down have been well-worn over the last hundred years of plays and novels and films about how shit Ireland is.
At the time, Trainspotting was totally unprecedented. The wheel turns and audiences got used to that aesthetic in the way we’ll get used to anything. Watching Dublin Oldschool carry itself as if it’s subversive really is a case of trying to swim upstream.