Tuesday 16 April 2024

All You Need is Death (Ireland 2023: Dir Paul Duane)

Set in contemporary Ireland, singer Anna (Simone Collins) and her friend Aleks (Charlie Maher) are on the search for arcane songs performed in the numerous island watering holes; Anna secretly records them, a fact which is disclosed in a funny opening scene. The pair are hoping that their discoveries will be lucrative, but so far nobody's biting, and their cultural digging is only beneficial for Anna's live sets. But they're not alone; self help guru Agnes (Catherine Siggins) presides over a whole roomful of tune searchers, all on the lookout for the one song that can be 'externally validated'.

Following a tipoff, about a song so old it's more legend than fact, the pair make the journey to Crossmaglen where they hope to find Maggie Concannon, oral keeper of one of the oldest songs in Ireland. When they arrive they discover that while Maggie has died her alcoholic granddaughter Rita (the always reliable Olwen Fouéré) has inherited the song, which is sung in a dialect that predates even the earliest Irish civilisations and passed down to women only. They also find Agnes, who seems to have beaten them to it. It is forbidden to record the song (traditionally of course that would mean writing it down, but in the intervening years more modern methods have been developed for doing this) for fear of unleashing something awful. Anna and Aleks respect the request, but Agnes is more unscrupulous; and her faux pas sets in chain a horrifying sequence of events.

There are, arguably, far too many ideas in All You Need is Death to make it a truly satisfying watch, but despite this the film succeeds on the strength of its central idea, a sort of musical version of the Monty Python sketch 'The Funniest Joke in the World'. Early scenes evoke the uneasy blend of humour and horror that benefitted the 1973 film The Wicker Man (a movie which - shoot me now - I don't like that much), and the climax takes us into similar territory explored in the 2016 Liam Gavin movie A Dark Song.

Olwen Fouéré as Rita in All You Need is Death

Folklorists may twitch a little at the sensationalising of the oral song tradition, but there's no doubting that a fair few traditional Irish standards have rather strange origins. I could have done with some of the quirkier cul de sac narrative elements being excised - the central premise is a strong one and didn't need to be diluted - and some of the performances are more accomplished than others, but this is a creepy piece of filmmaking aided by an unsettling score from Ian Lynch, whose own band Lankum are worth checking out.

Duane is an experienced documentary filmmaker, and it's a mark of the quality of his transition to scripted features that I initially scoffed at the seemingly clumsily punned title of the thing, while gradually realising its thematic aptness; it's that kind of film. 

All You Need Is Death is in UK cinemas from 19 April.

No comments:

Post a Comment