When her estranged son goes missing, Margaret’s (Rachel Griffiths) ex-husband Matt (Michael McElhatton) suddenly appears back in her life. At the same time, Margaret’s day to day peace and quiet is shattered when she finds a young man collapsed outside her home. It is not long before a relationship forms between the young man Joe (Barry Keoghan) and Margaret, and it turns from motherly to something much more complicated.
2016 is shaping up to be a very exciting year for Irish cinema, and it’s only February. As well as Room and Brooklyn being nominated for awards around the world – including Oscars – Mammal premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year to rave reviews.
Rachel Griffiths is in the lead here as Margaret, and does well at carrying the film with this quiet and isolated character. Griffith makes sure that the audience knows a lot more is going on underneath the surface of the character, and that her peaceful present may well be the product of a tumultuous past. Michael McElhatton brings anger and frustration to his role as the father of a young man who has gone missing, and is a complication in Margaret’s life. Further complications come in the form of Barry Keoghan’s Joe; the character seems to be a typical Dublin teen hellraiser, but it is obvious that this brash exterior covers a more sensitive core, and Keoghan balances the two well.
Mammal is director Rebecca Daly’s first film since The Other Side of Sleep five years ago and, like her previous film, Mammal is a film that does not rely on exposition through dialogue, but unlike the director’s previous work, emotion and truth are very clear in Mammal. The screenplay for the film is written by Daly and screenwriting partner Glenn Montgomery, and through the events of the film we get to see how different characters deal with grief. There are many times when the film strays into uncomfortable territory, but this serves to underline the emotional messiness that comes with coping and continuing to live. As well as this, it is interesting to watch how Margaret and Joe’s relationship changes as the emotional strengths of the two switch places.
As director, Daly allows Griffiths to carry the film, and for the relationship between her and the two men in her life to dictate the flow of the story. There are times when the film feels almost painfully slow paced, but when events begin to move and emotion and motivation become clear, this is where the film comes into its own.
In all, Mammal is an often uncomfortable but unflinching examination of grief and how the choices we dictate the course of our lives. Griffiths’ stillness and quietness at the heart of the film give it depth; McElhatton makes a difficult role engaging, and Keoghan cements his position as a young Irish star on the rise. Some stronger pacing and a clearer directorial voice could have made Mammal great, but as it stands it is a smart and uncomfortable watch.