Ireland at the Oscars

Irish talent has stormed the Oscars. Colm Bairéad’s An Cailín Ciúin (The Quiet Girl) has become the first film in Irish Gaelic to be nominated for best international picture at the Academy Awards and Martin McDonagh’s The Banshees of Inisherin performed beyond expectations with nine nominations. Five Irish actors find themselves competing for awards (four of those are up for the Banshees). Colin Farrell is nominated for best actor, Kerry Condon is mentioned for best supporting actress, and Barry Keoghan and Brendan Gleeson go against one another for best-supporting-actor. Paul Mescal is nominated as best actor for his turn in Charlotte Wells acclaimed debut Aftersun. Richard Baneham, a graduate of the animation course at Ballyfermot College of Further Education, is nominated in the best-visual-effects race for Avatar: The Way of Water.

An Cailín Ciúin (The Quiet Girl) is the first Irish language feature film to be nominated for an Oscar

Now turning aside for the moment the debate about lack of nominations for women directors (for which Wells should surely have been considered), the nominations represent a phenomenon of cultural triumph and quiet soft-power for Ireland.

A quarter of Oscar actor nominations this year are Irish. Ireland has a population of 5 million people. That’s a phenomenal success story. It’s also one that is inconceivable for Scotland.

Can you imagine a film in Scottish Gaelic to be nominated for best international picture at the Academy Awards? You cannot. Can you imagine a Scottish director commanding a raft of Scottish talent to dominate nominations? You cannot. Our ‘film-industry’ celebrates when a super-hero film is shot here, our film festival has just been shut down, as have iconic cinema venues and our arts sector faces swingeing cuts.

There is a disconnect between the parts: writing, theatre, tv, film.

As Pat Kane laments (Culture cuts at BBC Radio Scotland speak to a much deeper malaise): “…beyond the news programmes, both the TV and radio versions of “BBC Scotland” share the same mediocre sensibility. There are endless shows and voices from the “real lives” of Scots, following the routines of their work (or their leisure). There are very few shows that (like the average weekly schedule of Radio 4) bring the big ideas and edgy stories, preparing those Scottish citizens for their turbulent future …Why is there such a prohibition against intellectual seriousness, the grander narratives of Scotland’s past, present and future, and the major concepts that could frame and explain them?”

This lack of seriousness mirrors a lack of ambition and belief.

Kerry Condon in the Banshees of Inisherin

There’s more lamenting here as Charlotte Wells reflects on the closure of the Filmhouse – and no doubt there will be more when the King’s Theatre closes losing a prize cultural asset and when the Tron Theatre goes – just as The Arches did before it.

Only a couple of weeks ago Creative Scotland warned it faced having to reduce the number of companies with long-term funding in half after being targeted for Scottish Government budget cuts. Up to a third are already said to be at risk of insolvency within months.

The solution is not to just practice the weeping and waling but to lobby for more funding, a more expansive ambition and crucially to see the arts as a connected ecosystem rather than individual companies battling it out for a diminishing pot of money. Ambition comes in waves and bursts, who remembers the rearguard action that was fought for years against the very idea of a Scottish National Theatre Company? Much hand-wringing went on for decades about whether it would be a good idea, and the saga of the botched and delayed ‘Scottish film studio’ is an epic saga in its own right.

We celebrate ‘Scottish film’ when Avengers Assemble – but Glasgow being represented as Glasgow would be a real Marvel.

So why can we not imagine Scottish success in the film industry on the scale of Ireland? It’s surely not for want of talent as writers, actors, directors and technicians. The easy-answer is that we have neither the cultural ambition nor the resources and clout of an independent country. This is not to say that Scottish actors and directors and writers and cinematographers should have to stay here, there is something amazing about a diaspora of talent across the world, but like in so many industries there is a difference between leaving because you are developing your work and leaving because there is no work to develop.

Nor is it just true that the Scottish government and the Scottish creative agencies are just hopelessly hand-tied until the magical day of independence. The lack of serious engagement with building an arts ecosystem that has genuine ambition and connectivity is a political disgrace, and a mystery.

Aftersun (2022) dir. Charlotte Wells

Scotland has talent pouring out of it’s creative pores, but lacks the imagination, guts or strategy to make it good. This is a tragedy. Why is Celtic Connections – a showcase of home-grown and international talent – not beamed out across BBC Scotland? Where is the serious tv show that will reflect on the life of Tom Nairn? Why is so little of our own sporting success (little as it is) impossible to access on our public broadcaster? Where is the showcase for theatre and screenwriting talent on Scottish tv and radio? Why does no-one in senior political positions seem to take any of this seriously or present any ambition for moving this forward?

As Robin MacPherson, professor of screen media at Edinburgh Napier University and director of Screen Academy Scotland said some years back:

“The problem is, as the experience of every other European country confirms, that you cannot increase either quality (measured by awards, critical reception, long-term impact) or commercial returns without increasing output. That requires investment directly into the films, in the companies that produce them and, as importantly, into the people who conceive and execute them.”

Added to this, and this is where the political reality really is a problem MacPherson notes that we need Scottish producers to have the kind of stability which depends on consistent levels of domestic production, both in feature film and high-end TV drama, but: “…. until we address the equally deep-seated problem of UK broadcasters’ marginalisation of Scotland as primarily a source of net license fee income or advertising revenue without a corresponding requirement to source production locally, our film companies will continue to struggle for survival.”

So congratulations to all the talented Irish actors, producers and writers. But look across the water not just with envy but with anger and ambition for better here too.




Comments (12)

Join the Discussion

Your email address will not be published.

  1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    Ah, but …. Scotland’s too we an no very good. Scottish Labour keeps telling us that, but some of us urnae listenin.

  2. Connor Curran says:

    Good article there, echoing what I’ve been mulling over recently too. Yes, Ireland is far ahead with their cinema, but it’s really only since 1989 with My Left Foot that we hit the world stage (i.e. Hollywood) that our international voice gained volume. Even that success was built on the previous decade, when there were some important new stories told (e.g. Angel was Neil Jordan’s 1982 debut set directly in the Troubles), and its own nationhood has allowed Ireland to explore many more stories and histories than Scotland has so far – and even we still get the dire Oirish romances for Hallmark audiences (Wild Mountain Thyme, 2020, horrific but hey ho).

    Individual stories from Scotland, Ireland and Wales are totally overwhelmed by the sheer number and variety of English stories. A quick skim of English historical broadcast & feature output will cover literally every century of their country’s existence. Minor historical English characters can get whole series.

    With the viewing populations being so disproportionate in size, it’s inevitable I suppose. But given what we know about England’s pathological reticence to look inside any of the dark, locked and forbidden rooms of their history, we should not be too surprised.

    This avoidance of historical facts is summed up in Mark Kermode’s excellent series on cinema genres, particularly the latter one about British cinema. Throughout the episode, Mr Kermode listed film after film through the decades as “British”. But actually, he was listing *English* films, with a brief pre-coda on Scottish and (whisper it) Welsh film. It’s the oldest and most viciously, madly protected secret: Britain is England & British culture is English culture. Gets them leery and defensive.

    1. SleepingDog says:

      @Connor Curran, yet so much of what is produced globally today really belongs under a category of ‘world culture’. Or in the cases of science fiction and fantasy, often unrelated to today’s maps.

      The point is fast approaching where untutored individuals will, thanks to advanced artificial intelligence trained on vast cultural troves, be able to create their own movies in minutes simply by describing what they want to make. I do not know how this will affect the way we consume movies, but the manner of making them is likely to become ever more eclectic and blind to geographical demarcations.

  3. Mal Content says:

    Interesting to assume that Banshees writer-director-producer Martin McDonagh, born and raised in London, is Irish
    Missing: any mention of Jono McLeod’s award-nommed My Old School, Adura Onashile’s Glasgow film Girl, screening next month, upcoming The Origin which has already won a BIFA. Or the Rig – written, shot and filmed in Scotland
    Or BBC Studioworks up and running in Glasgow.
    If we are to debate Scottish film and TV culture in a grown-up manner, we have to acknowledge the successes, not just the failures.

    1. Hi ‘Mal’ – were these works Oscar nominated?

  4. Niemand says:

    I believe the first Scottish film to win an Oscar was way back in 1962 (Seawards the Great Ships), though directed by a Canadian, Hilary Harris.

    It goes almost without saying that the dominance of England in an unequal union must have had a major effect on the relative lack of success since then but can that really be the main reason? One cannot say the same thing about music (pop, folk and classical) where Scottish artists and ensembles have world renowned status. Funding matters a lot but I have never bought the argument that we cannot do anything good till we get the real money and this is even more true now with access to relatively cheap tech. And remember the English film industry has also been criticised for years as being mediocre at best, and too parochial even with those lauded (compared to France for example).

    This article is nicely balanced and poses the right questions. The way you change things is by making films and keep making them – low budget, no budget, whatever – it is the ideas and talent involved that matter and from that things flow – look at the waves being made by Mark Jenkin from Cornwall (‘Bait’, ‘Enys Men’) films made on a shoestring but with a vision, endless determination and commitment. And guess what – they are total opposite of Hollywood fair in just about every respect.

  5. SleepingDog says:

    I think awards systems are at best problematic, and routinely serve the interests of vile powerful elites, whether British royal honours, Nobel Prizes (and Medals), or Oscars.

    How the Pentagon dictates Hollywood storylines by Jonathan Cook:
    “New documentary discloses the ways western publics are softened up for aggressive, global US militarism through the Defense Department’s influence over thousands of US films and TV shows.”
    I have not watched the documentary Theaters of War (2022) it refers to, but I am familiar with academic work on National Security Cinema, which covers much more than war or spy movies. The evidence suggests that the bigger the budget, the more likely a movie will be compromised in some way.

    1. Niemand says:

      I tend to agree. Why worry about awards? It doesn’t seem to bother other European filmmakers much. Be confident in what you do and f*** Hollywood. Besides, there are European awards that have clout and have certainly served the likes of Mike Leigh and Ken Loach pretty well.

      I noticed yesterday that a Welsh language drama has been bought up by Netflix so the point about Scottish Gaelic material might be focussing on the wrong outlet.

      1. It’s not really just about the soft power of film as an international medium but about how you have a domestic indigenous industry of story-making about yourself and the cultural and economic benefit of this. It’s not about ‘we want 14 Oscars’!

      2. SleepingDog says:

        @Niemand, I wonder since this is the kind of stuff the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are apparently happy to divulge, how corrupt the Oscars are, which (I have no idea of the substance) suggests a different take on a white Irish minority success over the board:
        As for Netflix and the Oscars, the same newspaper reports “German critics pan Oscar-nominated All Quiet On the Western Front”. Perhaps people who have watched too many Hollywood war movies are not best placed to make realistic and thoughtful literary adaptations of classic (anti-)war novels (one I re-read recently).

  6. Dissenter says:

    of acting and directing talent.

    THE 39 STEPS (1935)
    Alfred Hitchcock’s only cinematic venture north of the border produced this classic that is perhaps best remembered for its daring chase sequence across the Forth Bridge. Although its sense of Scottish geography is slightly off as once across the bridge the hero finds himself in the middle of the Highlands!

    WHISKY GALORE (1949)
    Based on the true story of a wartime ship packed with 50,000 cases of whisky that ran aground off the Outer Hebrides, Alexander Mackendrick’s directorial debut is as funny today as it was over half-a-century ago. The real ship – the SS Politician – ran aground off Eriskay and it is said that one of the estimated 250,000 bottles of her whisky is still found by someone on the beach every other year.

    BRIGADOON (1954)
    Gene Kelly becomes enchanted by a mythical village in the Highlands in this classic musical. The village was indeed mythical, the whole film was shot on a soundstage in Los Angeles.

    THE WICKER MAN (1974)
    Edward Woodward stars as a policeman sent to investigate strange happenings on the remote Scottish island of Summerisle. A strange, disturbing film that was largely ignored upon its release The Wicker Man has become one of the great cult classics of modern cinema.

    A stark, brutal look at sectarian violence and a grim snapshot of the No Mean City Glasgow of the early 1970s, this film is not easy viewing, but it’s well worth it. Not least for a revelatory performance by the young Billy Connolly as Paddy – Connolly’s first serious acting role.

    Scottish uber-director Bill Forsyth’s debut feature tells the story of a bunch of likely lads planning the biggest ever heist . . . of a toilet factory! A beautiful gentle comedy from the late 1970s.

    GREGORY’S GIRL (1981)
    Over twenty-five years on and Bill Forsyth’s Cumbernauld-shot masterpiece still looks as fresh as a summer morning. As sweet a take on teenage romance as was ever filmed it’s worth watching simply for Chic Murray’s show-stealing performance as a pastry-loving headmaster. A joy forever.

    LOCAL HERO (1983)
    Forsyth’s run of form continued with this (slight) remake of Whisky Galore. A Texas oilman comes to a remote part of Scotland and finds the natives are wilier than he bargained for. Beautifully shot by Oscar-winning cinematographer Chris Menges – Scotland’s beaches have never looked better.

    COMFORT AND JOY (1984)
    A great performance by Bill Paterson as Alan Bird – a Glasgow Radio DJ suffering a mid-life crisis – lifts this film out of the ordinary, but the real star of the show is the city itself: from dusk shots of the M8 motorway to Christmas shopping on Buchanan Street, Glasgow sparkles. Oh, and there’s a show-stealing cameo from the late, great Rikki Fulton as Paterson’s long-suffering boss.

    A little-known gem from the mid 80s tells the charming story of two Edinburgh lads who take to robbing coach loads of tourists, accidentally becoming modern-day Robin Hoods in the process. With a stirring soundtrack by Big Country.

    HIGHLANDER (1986)
    A soundtrack by Queen, a top-drawer cameo by Sir Sean Connery and some incredible Highland scenery all add up to raise this above the level of unashamed top-drawer escapist entertainment. Even the dated 1980’s special effects don’t seem to matter too much now!

    Long before The Thick of It made him a star of the small screen, Peter Capaldi wrote and starred in this touching story of a young man trying to drive from London to Glasgow to claim an inheritance. Filmed on location in Strathclyde and featuring a terrific cameo from Richard ‘Victor Meldrew’ Wilson this is well worth tracking down.

    SHALLOW GRAVE (1994)
    Three friends, one corpse and a suitcase full of money. The best advertisement for Edinburgh property ever made (and the worst for flat-sharing) Shallow Grave introduced the world to the talents of director Danny Boyle.

    BRAVEHEART (1995)
    Altogether now – ‘FREEEDOM!’. Mel Gibson steps behind the camera to direct and achieves an unlikely feat: a Hollywood film, directed by an Australian and shot largely in Ireland which managed to become the biggest film in Scottish box-office history! It also inspired a generation of football fans to get creative with the face-paint.

    ROB ROY (1995)
    Rob Roy failed to achieve quite the same level of commercial success, but the film has much to recommend it: the lochs and glens of Scotland have rarely looked more beautiful and the central performances by Liam Neeson, Tim Roth and Brian Cox are simply towering.

    Based on Irvine Welsh’s novel, Trainspotting defined the nineties and kick-started the careers of Robert Carlyle, Kelly Macdonald, Ewan McGregor, Euan Bremner and Johnny Lee Miller. The most adrenaline-fuelled look at addiction ever filmed.

    MRS BROWN (1997)
    John Madden directed this touching, understated look at Queen Victoria’s platonic relationship with her Highland ghillie John Brown. Billy Connolly played Brown and won worldwide critical acclaim for his performance.

    RATCATCHER (1999)
    Written and directed by Lynne Ramsay, Ratcatcher is a haunting story of childhood set in the Glasgow of 1973. With garbage strikes, fetid canals and tower blocks forming much of the backdrop it is a tribute to the power of Ramsay’s filmmaking that there is not a depressing second in this stunning, unsettling film.

    SWEET SIXTEEN (2002)
    Made by award-winning Ken Loach and set in Greenock this is a tough yet tender look at a young boy’s attempts to provide a better life for his mother. It features an incredible performance by 15-year-old Martin Compston, an unknown actor at the time.

    RED ROAD (2006)
    Andrea Arnold’s directorial debut swept the board at many film festivals last year and is compelling viewing. It tells the story of a young woman whose job involves watching CCTV monitor footage of a run down estate on Glasgow’s Red Road and features a powerful central performance by Kate Dickie.

    A French illusionist finds himself out of work and travels to Scotland, where he meets a young woman. Their ensuing adventure changes both their lives forever.

    NEDS (2010)
    Peter Mullan’s third feature as a writer and director, after Orphans and The Magdalene Sisters, returns him to the 1970’s Glasgow of his youth.

    1. Good list Dissenter. Nobody denied the acting and directing talent here. Quite the opposite. The argument is could Scottish films reap the sort of domination of an Oscars as Ireland just have? And the reason is ‘No’ is because of a distinct lack of ambition, investment and strategy that would connect up our pools of writers, technicians, musicians, actors etc etc that connect through from literature to tv, radio and film.

      As the Guardian has written on why Ireland’s success has broken thorugh:

      “Its support for writers has created the lively literary culture that produced Sally Rooney, author of Normal People, a television adaptation of which gave Mescal his big break.

      Though still relatively small, the government calculates that the audio-visual sector is currently worth more than €1bn to the economy, employing 12,000 people. It has been pouring resources into it, both at home – where a huge new studio complex is due to open in Wicklow next year – and abroad: its film agency, Screen Ireland, last month signed a landmark agreement with France. It is no stranger to the sort of schmoozing that wins friends and influences Hollywood juries.

      This has placed it in pole position to capitalise on the insatiable hunger for skills and facilities generated by the international boom in streaming, while also enabling niche subcultures to develop, such as a thriving horror film scene. The production spend on feature films, documentaries, animation and TV drama rose by 40% between 2019 and 2021, according to Screen Ireland, with international activity up by 45%. Far from a wishy-washy handout culture, this is an economic strategy that deserves its own place on the podium.”

Help keep our journalism independent

We don’t take any advertising, we don’t hide behind a pay wall and we don’t keep harassing you for crowd-funding. We’re entirely dependent on our readers to support us.

Subscribe to regular bella in your inbox

Don’t miss a single article. Enter your email address on our subscribe page by clicking the button below. It is completely free and you can easily unsubscribe at any time.