This is a film with a troubled history that provides satisfaction and disappointment in equal measure.


The release of Shell in 2013 introduced me to an outstanding actress in Chloe Pirrie but it also suggested that Scott Graham, then making his debut as writer/director, was a major talent in the making. Iona, again set in Scotland, is his second feature and the good news is that it confirms his standing as a true auteur, a genuine artist whose work carries a signature. On both occasions collaborating with the fine photographer Yoliswa von Dallwitz, he displays his skill in utilising the ’Scope format to make the most of the locations while retaining the sense of intimacy that his material requires. His cinematic sense is immediately illustrated here as he introduces us to Iona (Ruth Negga) and her 15-year-old son Billy (Ben Gallacher), this as they travel first by ship, then by car, on foot, by ferry and finally walking again: all this is done without dialogue and underlines the remoteness of their destination. This is the island after which Iona was named and where, having been away for fifteen years or more, she now seeks out her foster father, Daniel (Douglas Henshall), a widower.
In part this piece is a portrait of a community in which religion still flourishes. Daniel himself is a religious man and we soon meet his daughter Elisabeth (Michelle Duncan), her husband Matthew (Tom Brooke) and their 14-year-old daughter (Sorcha Groundsell in a promising debut). The latter has lost the use of her legs and, if Matthew regularly carries her around himself, her condition also makes him wary when the girl shows an interest in Billy. In fact there’s a whole back history which contributes to the reactions of Matthew and Elisabeth to the new arrivals. The playwright Henrik Ibsen was a great one for dramas in the course of which more and more hidden events come to light, but even he might feel that Graham’s screenplay piles them up.




When Iona was first screened (that was at the 2015 Edinburgh Film Festival) it lasted 110 minutes, but apparently Graham prefers this much shorter version which is nearer to his first cut. He could be wrong because in this treatment the revelations about Iona’s past are combined with rather vague and arbitrarily placed flashbacks to explain why mother and son have moved north (the other cut seems to have covered this in a prologue). As it is, the drama becomes over-weighted and ultimately melodramatic but, worse still, although the narrative is clear, the purpose and meaning of the tale get lost. When the lights go up the audience is left asking what point was being made. Nevertheless, even if there are distant echoes of both Terence Davies and of The Goob, Iona does confirm that as a filmmaker Graham is his own man.    


MANSEL STIMPSON               


Cast: Ruth Negga, Douglas Henshall, Tom Brooke, Michelle Duncan, Ben Gallacher, Sorcha Groundsell, Christine Steele, Matthew Zajac, Jim Sturgeon.


Dir Scott Graham, Pro Margaret Matheson, Screenplay Scott Graham, Ph Yoliswa von Dallwitz, Pro Des Stephen Mason, Ed Florian Nonnenmacher, Costumes Jo Thompson.

BFI/Creative Scotland/a Bard Entertainments production/Boudica Silver etc.-Verve Pictures.
85 mins. UK/Germany. 2015. Rel: 25 March 2016. Cert. 15