Calm With Horses




A deeply impressive drama that unfortunately fails at the last hurdle.

Calm With Horses

Barry Keoghan and Cosmo Jarvis


Whenever the final stages of a film fall short of what has preceded them it is impossible not to feel disappointment and it becomes all the more acute when, as here, the quality of the piece up to that point has been exceptional. Make no mistake about it, Calm With Horses is a notable work on many levels. Not least it marks the feature debut of its director, Nick Rowland, who displays an assured grasp of the medium rare in a newcomer. Contrary to what its title might imply, this is a very tough film but one that is beautifully made and which boasts outstanding performances, especially those by Cosmo Jarvis (notable in Lady Macbeth) and Barry Keoghan (exceptional in The Killing of a Sacred Deer). 


Set in rural Ireland, Calm With Horses, taken from a short story by Colin Barrett, has at its centre a young man referred to by all as Arm (his actual name is Douglas Armstrong and this is Jarvis's role). Formerly a boxer, that career was dramatically cut short and since then, living as he does in a community ruled over by the Devers family whose criminal activities include drug-dealing, he has drifted into being an enforcer for them. There has always been a propensity to violence in Arm even in childhood, but a gentler side has manifested itself in his relationship with Ursula (Niamh Algar, another impressive player) who is the mother of his young son, Jack (Kiljan Tyr Moroney). The boy is autistic and in need of attending a social needs school the cost of which Arm hopes to meet through what the Devers family pay him. However, his involvement with these criminals (his best friend is Dympna Devers (Keoghan) who is heir to the trade of his uncles, the outwardly respectable Hector (David Wilmot) and the psychotic Paudi played by Ned Dennehy) has had drastic consequences in that it has led to Ursula breaking up with Arm.


As will be realised, it is a complex situation that is depicted here and one that involves complicated characters. The kind of violence meted out by Arm and seen early on when he makes a no holds barred attack on a man who has offended the Devers family is extreme, but we can also understand what Ursula saw in him. In due course when he is ordered not just to assault but to kill we find that taking a life is alien to him. Similarly, Dympna although ready to fall in with what is expected of him isn't quite the tough guy that the family suppose but somebody eager to leave the rough stuff to Arm regardless of his friendship for him. As for Ursula, following her estrangement from Arm, she has found a new boyfriend in Rob (Anthony Welsh) but, despite her reasons for having rejected Arm, the understanding that had existed between them before he became involved with the Devers family has not been altogether killed off. Indeed, a scene featuring the two of them illustrates vividly a natural interaction born of their former closeness. This is just one sequence that reveals the quality of both the acting and of Joseph Murtagh's screenplay and without doubt those scenes centred on Arm, Ursula and young Jack (the child who seems calmer when around horses) are as compelling as the drama involving Arm and the Devers family.


As already indicated, Rowland's contribution linked to that of his editors is masterly. Clearly at ease with the 'Scope format, his command of the screen is perhaps best illustrated by quoting two examples. One key scene breaks off abruptly leaving it to the viewer to decide the outcome, but before long memory shots are inserted to reveal what did happen. This is unusual and not easy to pull off, but Rowland handles it superbly. Elsewhere he occasionally adopts touches of stylisation (a touch of slow motion, shots in which people are speaking but their words are not heard). Such devices can easily feel too self-conscious to work, but here these moments are so adroitly managed that we feel that we are experiencing them from inside Arm's head thus adding to our identification with him. It should be noted too that the music score by Blanck Mass is a definite presence but one so linked to the intensity of the material that it never feels imposed.


From the above it will be apparent that Rowland, Jarvis, Keoghan and Algar all deserve to view Calm With Horses as a film which will enhance their reputations. If I exclude Murtagh from that despite some excellent writing it is because it is the screenplay that seems responsible for the lack of conviction in the last scenes. Possibly there should have been a bit more information earlier about the termination of Arm's boxing career, but the first real doubt arises when a character who had seemed to disappear from the story suddenly reappears without any explanation of how this came about. More importantly, the latter stages impose on what has been a very individual and persuasive work something that starts to feel like standard melodrama as the villainous Paudi pursues a wounded Arm. This leads the film into a conclusion that feels altogether less real and not even Jarvis can entirely disguise the fact that a big scene in which he talks on the telephone feels as though it has been written as a big scene, one thought up to provide an emotional climax. This might all pass as good enough but for the fact that until this late stage Calm With Horses is so very, very effective. One emerges with the sense that the work has not in the end come off, but that doesn't in any way diminish one's admiration for all the things in it that genuinely impress.




Cast: Cosmo Jarvis, Barry Keoghan, Niamh Algar, Ned Dennehy, Kiljan Tyr Moroney, David Wilmot, Anthony Welsh, Brid Brennan, Simone Kirby, Ryan McPartland, Liam Carney.


Dir Nick Rowland, Pro Daniel Emmerson, Screenplay Joseph Murtagh, from a short story by Colin Barrett, Ph Piers McGrail, Pro Des Damien Creagh, Ed Nicholas Chaudeurge and Matthew Tabern, Music Blanck Mass, Costumes Sharon Long.


DMC Film/Element Pictures/Film4/Screen Ireland-Altitude Film Distribution.
101 mins. UK/Ireland. 2019. Rel: 13 March 2020. Cert. 15.