Outcast (Colm McCarthy, 2010)
There’s a great, great sequence about an hour into Outcast that sums up pretty much everything I found compelling about this movie, the first feature from veteran TV director McCarthy (Murphy’s Law), which he co-wrote with Tom K. McCarthy (no idea if they’re any relation). Tomatsk (Josh Whitelaw in his first screen appearance), a mentally challenged boy of indeterminate age (I suspect late teens/early twenties, but it is never disclosed), goes through a series of coincidences that may, or may not, put him in harm’s way. But Tomatsk is never the main player in any of these scenes, save the final one; he’s on the sidelines, and we’re led to believe he’s a bit player, a piece of window dressing or local color, until we realize that, in fact, this entire sequence of events has led up to Tomatsk being in this alley at this particular time, and we hear one thing just as the camera pans round and we see another, and god if it isn’t tempting indeed to believe the lord loves drunks and fools, but god is nowhere to be found in this tale of warring magics and forbidden love.
Plot: Mary (Prometheus‘ Kate Dickey) and her son Fergal (Niall Bruton in his first feature appearance) are wanderers, and they’ve just settled into a new flat in the heart of Dublin’s tenement district. Mary is a witch, and her first act after the bags are unpacked is to paint the walls with protective runes against any who would harm her or Fergal. Living next door is a Scots/Romany family, but most we see of them, save a single scene (the first scene in the sequence I described in the first paragraph, in fact) is fetching Petronella (Hanna Stanbridge, also in her feature debut) and her brother Tomatsk. Fergal and Petronella meet by chance one day outside the local grocery, and nothing is quite the same after that. But love brings vulnerability, and Mary and Fergal’s settling has not gone unnoticed: a pair of magicians, Liam and is apprentice Cathal (Red Tails‘s Ciaran McMenamin and Millions‘ James Nesbitt) are tracking them, though the local Laird (Braveheart‘s James Cosmo) is wary of their presence, and an inhuman beast seems also to be stalking the family, striking closer to home with each kill.
“Urban fantasy” has been one of the great buzzwords in publishing for about a decade now, stories of faerie transplanted to New York or LA or Vegas or London, but this is the first time I’ve ever seen a movie that I can say with no qualms is a serious attempt as making a film that qualifies as urban fantasy. And despite McCarthy’s falling to convention in the last fifteen minutes or so and filling the ending full of twists (though all of them are as carefully set up as the scene above), there’s no doubt this film fills the bill. McCarthy has taken a tale of wizards and witches and set it in Dublin, plastered it over with that dark, oppressive urban-fantasy atmosphere, even thrown in the requisite romance subplot, and the entire damn thing succeeds. It succeeds, I think, because (I’m hypothesizing here, but this is how it feels to me) McCarthy, since he was working in a field very popular in literature but almost nonexistent in film, approached this as a novel. He thought a lot about setting up that sequence I talked about in the opening paragraph, and that’s not an anomaly; that’s the way this movie goes. The movie is slow during the first half, but that’s what comes from taking your time to develop your characters; I don’t think most film viewers will have a problem with that if they don’t go in expecting a big action film. It helps, of course, that the McCarthys have written characters that they actually do develop. If the movie does have a flaw, it’s that the main characters are so realistic that the two-dimensional minor characters (the women from the Tenement Association, Petronella’s ex-boyfriend, and the Laird are all good examples) stand out maybe more than they should. But I wasn’t willing to let that interfere with my enjoyment of what is otherwise an excellent piece of work. This is truly must-see TV for fans of urban fantasy. ****