“Further Beyond” breaks the biopic mould
REFERENCES to cinema are stitched into the very fabric of “Further Beyond”, an innovative documentary-biopic written, directed and filmed by Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor. Perhaps it therefore is easiest to describe it by comparison with other films: a cross between Stanley Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon,” (1975), Michael Winterbottom’s “A Cock and Bull Story” (2005), John Crowley’s “Brooklyn” (2015) and the books that provided their source material.
Like Kubrick’s slow-moving epic, “Further Beyond” is in part the story of an 18th-century Irish adventurer escaping humble circumstances to make something of himself abroad. In this case, the subject is not fictional: Ambrosio O’Higgins (1720-1801) was a tenant farmer born in County Sligo who became a merchant in South America. Around the age of 40, he entered the service of Imperial Spain, soon establishing an all-year postal service over the snow-bound Andes and ending up as captain-general of Chile and viceroy of Peru. As with Laurence Sterne’s novel, “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman”, and Mr Winterbottom’s adaptation, the documentary deals with the the impossibility of fully capturing a complex life. This is made even harder by the decision to focus on the comparatively undocumented periods O’Higgins spent in Ireland and Spain.
Adding to this complexity is the figure of Helen, Mr Lawlor’s late mother, whose story partially mirrors O’Higgins’. She was shipped across the Atlantic from the Bronx as a baby, brought up by her aunt in rural County Kerry and returned as a teenager to 1950s New York (this is where the resemblance with “Brooklyn” is felt; Helen also faced a choice between “home” and the possibilities of life in America). The similarities between O’Higgins’ and Helen’s journeys (both passed through Cobh harbour leaving and arriving in Ireland, for example) propel a meditation on migration, place, experience and identity. Such a project runs the risk of ending up mired in pseudo-profundity.
Yet the film is saved from such a fate by two things; one is the beguiling cinematography. Lingering shots of menacing Andean peaks, mist rising off the lake at Ballynarry, the narrow streets of Cadiz and soaring Manhattan skyscapes are mixed in with footage of Helen firing a handgun and a Skype interview with her brother, Chris. The other is the frank, funny narration linking these together. Actors Denise Gough and Alan Howley provide voiceovers, imagining the interior lives of Helen and O’Higgins. But at every turn they undermine any latent pomposity, pointing out the recycled music from the directors’ previous film, “Mister John” (2013), and revealing that the rugged Andalusian clifftop from which O’Higgins (as embodied by Jose Miguel Jimenez) gazes out towards the New World is, in fact, Howth Head near Dublin. The directors were “pissed off” by the lack of snow at a mountain pass central to O’Higgins’s story, Ms Gough admits, and “there seemed little point in asking Jose to get into costume”. The actor scowls in a scarf and leather jacket.
Scarce resources and limited time encouraged the directors, who together make up a creative partnership called Desperate Optimists, to be experimental. Their funding, received in March 2015, was conditional on having the film ready for the Dublin Film Festival just 11 months later. “We don’t have the skill base to make a conventional documentary,” Mr Lawlor happily conceded at a recent screening in London. Serendipity also played a key role: it was only in going through some old video recordings that they rediscovered the footage of Helen, and began to think about including her story. The stunning shots of O’Higgins trudging over the Cordillera were made possible by Mr Jimenez’s unplanned presence in Chile due to a family illness.
The result is something simultaneously ambitious and down-to-earth. Mischievous mentions of the blockbuster they might have made are scattered throughout. Aidan Gillen (“Game of Thrones”) stars briefly as a brooding Hollywood version of O’Higgins. Not everything comes off: some of the narrators’ asides, apparently meant to be naturalistic, feel a bit stilted. Then again, this dream-like, understated aura is a hallmark of the Desperate Optimists’ work: notably their debut feature film, “Helen” (2009), in which a teenage girl gradually assumes the identity of a murder victim after playing her in a police reconstruction.
One of Mr Lawlor’s friends claimed to have come away from this curious film knowing less about O’Higgins than when he went in. But perhaps it is churlish to wish that more of his dramatic life (battles and treaties with Mapuche warriors, his relationship with a Chilean heiress nearly 40 years his junior, the exploits of his illegitimate son, Bernardo, the first post-independence leader of Chile) were featured. After all, this is a film about storytelling, not any single story itself. “This is not a small thing,” remarks the narrator as O’Higgins leaves Ireland, never to return. “Like the movement of the sea, perhaps, this act of dispossession and displacement set something in motion.” By dwelling on the themes of exile, belonging and the divergent trajectories a life can take, the directors have created something universal.
Further Beyond is screening throughout Britain in November 2016, and online at www.mubi.com
This is from Nov 10th 2016, 13:46 by by L.A.B.