SOURCE: CINI, No9, April 2000

The King’s Wake reviewed by Stephen McAnena


Funded by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland Lottery Fund, Irish Film Board, Proteus and the Cultural Traditions Group of the Community Relations Council, The King’s Wake is an expressionistic, dream-like – or, perhaps, nightmarish – vision of a terrifying night in the life of King Conor of Ulster. The first thing we see is a murder – a knife slashing, a bloody red hand – but we must wait to discover who is killer and who is killed. The opening title tells us that we are in Ulster, 280 BC, All Hallows Eve. Through a blasted landscape of barren earth and dead trees a mysterious figure moves, seemingly grotesquely misshapen, until we realise that it is a man carrying the body of another man – which he dumps into a lake.

The story is narrated by Conor himself, an ageing king isolated in his palace with only the memory of past glories to sustain him. On Halloween night, even that comfort is denied him, as ghosts from his past revisit him to present their own version of the events that Conor remembers. Among them are Phelim, a youth disfigured and killed by Conor, and Queen Maeve, Conor’s greatest adversary. The first appearance of Phelim’s scarred face is one of the many powerful moments in the film, given real pathos by the voice-over performance of Peter Balance. As played by Eleanor Methven, the extravagant Maeve is as vain, deluded and dangerous as Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard. Even CuChulainn, Conor’s ever-faithful warrior, is dead, and his ghost is powerful against the enemies that now assail his master.

When the Morrigan – the harbinger of death – appears to him, Conor finally determines to take control of his fate. He races into the night, into the strange collision of past and present, intent on taking an action that will alter his history and set him free from the demons of his conscience.

With its emphasis on the supernatural, The King’s Wake has many of the elements of the horror genre, but it is also a thriller – and with its fatalistic voice-over, flashback structure and murder mystery, it is very deliberately placing itself in the tradition of film noir.

Indeed, this is a very dark film in every sense. Most of the action takes place at night, with the characters moving in and out of the shadows and sometimes being engulfed by them. In one superb sequence, Queen Maeve leaves Conor in a pit, and as she climbs the stairs her dark cloak leaves a trail of blackness that gradually shuts out the light. Developed from a concept by Martin Melarkey and Gillian Lowe, The King’s Wake was specifically designed as animation for adults, and it is certainly that. The film contains moments of brutal, visceral violence that are none the less powerful for being rendered in animation. Flash-frames of battle – and its ugly aftermath – achieve what so many mainstream films signally fail in, by portraying warfare as a truly horrific experience.

Damien Gorman’s subtle and intelligent script keeps the story fast moving and mysterious – aided by Glenn Marshall’s excellent soundtrack – while also raising questions about the nature of history and the nature of truth. Conor believes his own legend until the legend itself threatens to destroy him; he has to attempt to create a new truth. At 35 minutes this would be categorised as a short film, but it is a truly cinematic experience.

Imagine an adaptation of an Alan Moore graphic novel directed by Kurosawa, and you’ll have some idea of what to expect.

Carol Moore as The Morrigan and Ian McElhinney as Aherne provide subtle and affecting characteristics, indeed the vocal performances are uniformly excellent. Particular credit, as so often, goes to Stephen Rea. As Conor, he gives a performance that is awesomely powerful. He turns repentant and resentful, defeated and defiant; he invests the character with a humanity that evokes both empathy and revulsion.

The real star of The King’s Wake, however, is chief animator and director John McCloskey. Anyone who has seen Midnight Dance will know that McCloskey is an animation director of rare ability, and he has surpassed himself here. Together with his team of animators at the Nerve Centre he has combined traditional 2D animation with computer generated imagery to create an entirely convincing world for the story. With his very individual style, he creates images that are often beautiful, sometimes shocking, always powerful. The King’s Wake is an attempt to take animation into the world of serious, adult filmmaking – perhaps eventually into the world of the full-length feature. Let’s hope so: John McCloskey has the talent to do it.

Stephen McAnena is a writer living and working in Belfast.

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