As far as black humour goes, Prasanna Puwanarajah’s new feature film Ballywalter is an agreeable demonstration of the importance of human connection. The plot, along with the cinematography, is simple. It follows two journeys of recovery as Eileen (Seána Kerslake) and Shane (Patrick Kielty) navigate their despondency and find comfort in sharing their loneliness with one another. Their chance encounter resonates as a kind of fateful meeting – two wearied strangers who understand each other’s struggles more than even the closest people in their lives.
Kerslake’s performance is passionate and heartfelt: her sharp wit is the perfect mask for the deep discontent she feels about the direction her life has taken, having to move home after failing University. Kielty, being no stranger to comedy in his career, depicts Shane’s bounce back from his drunken car accident as an inevitably torturous process, but one which is subtly aided by his routine visit to the comedy club – just what the doctor ordered! This remedy is wholesome (if not somewhat cliché), redeemed by Lloyd Hutchinson’s speech as Shane’s comedy course leader. By acknowledging the stereotype of comedians covering a darker secret, he makes room for commending the flexibility of comedy in allowing for failures. This is a touching idea that is echoed throughout the film, both in Shane and Eileen’s journeys.
Eileen is facing an identity crisis throughout the film, paralleled by the social dissonance of the Northern Irish setting. Puwanarajah’s focus on mirrors, accentuating the car’s rearview mirror and windscreen, envisions how Eileen watches life pass her by, with various passengers coming and going whilst she remains stationary (metaphorically and physically). Her stares are undeniably uncomfortable as she gazes into the mirror and the viewer partially experiences her identity crisis alongside her.
Cars have long been used in cinema as a symbol of exploration, and a means for truthful expression without observation from the outside world, Adrian Lyne’s adaptation of Lolita being one of the most famous. Perhaps this enabled the unlikely connection between Shane and Eileen, which was unfortunately corrupted by Eileen’s pass at Shane. The plot quickly brushed passed this awkwardness, along with Eileen’s car accident – missing the mark on exploring her turmoil more.
What cannot go uncredited in Ballywalter is Puwanarajah’s attention to detail. The Northern Irish setting is painted so vividly: street art, coastal drives, rocks with uplifting graffiti, and even a lingering shot of Lyra McKee’s memorial – a journalist who wrote about the Irish troubles and was assassinated in 2013. These all solidify the sense of social dissonance that both Eileen and Shane are affected greatly by, and without these details, their character development would not be nearly as moving. These truths are what make the film so visceral and, although gloomy, a poignant depiction of the importance of human connection. Ballywalter is a lesson on getting back on track after feeling the disappointments of the world – an invaluable message in the post-COVID world.
Ballywater is released in select cinemas on 22nd September 2023.
Watch the trailer for Ballywater here: