Director – Mike Newell, Screenplay – Jim Sheridan, Story – Michael Pearce, Producers – Jonathan Cavendish & Tim Palmer, Photography – Tom Sigel, Music – Patrick Doyle, Special Effects Supervisor – Gerry Johnston, Production Design – Jamie Leonard. Production Company – Little Bird Productions/Parallel Films
Gabriel Byrne (John ‘Papa’ Riley), Ciaran Fitzgerald (Ossie Riley), Ruaidhri Conroy (Tito Riley), Ellen Barkin (Kathleen), David Kelley (Grandfather), Bernard Gleeson (Inspector Bolger), Colm Meaney (Barreller), John Kavanagh (Hartinett)
John ‘Papa’ Riley is a former Traveller, one of a group of nomadic gypsies who travel the Irish countryside in horse-drawn caravans. Following the death of his wife Mary, Riley is reduced to living on welfare in a Dublin flat with his two sons Tito and Ossie. Mary’s father comes to visit. He is followed by a white horse that the old man claims is the mythical Tir na Nog. The two boys take to the horse. Following complaints from the neighbours, Tir na Nog is impounded by police inspector Bolger. Bolger is impressed by Tir na Nog’s ability to jump and sells it to millionaire businessman Hartinett who turns it into a champion racehorse. However, the boys steal Tir na Nog back and set out on a journey across the countryside where Tir na Nog leads them to a gradual reconciliation with their mother’s death.
This Irish production is a lovely film. Into the West was directed by English director Mike Newell, best known for Four Weddings and a Funeral (1993) and occasional other genre films such as the mummy film The Awakening (1980), Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005) and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010), and was written by Jim Sheridan, director of harshly realistic Irish dramas such as My Left Foot: The Story of Christy Brown (1988), In the Name of the Father (1993) and In America (2002) and one other genre entry with Dream House (2011).
Mike Newell and Jim Sheridan choose to play Into the West against the trend of sentimental horse stories like Black Beauty (various adaptations) and The Black Stallion (1979) and opt to tell the story with a hard realism. They set the film in a downbeat world of life on the welfare line amid the grimly impoverished tenements of Dublin’s modern unemployed – a background where the entrance of magic acts to heal the lives of its characters. Despite such a dreary milieu, the film manages to play with considerable charm and humour – with delightful images like the boys trying to busk on the street for money and the asthmatic Ciaran Fitzgerald being told to wheeze so they can get more money; the boys watching the neighbour’s tv through holes kicked in the apartment walls by the horse; or the opening scenes with a couple trying to con the social welfare department that they have fifteen children.
The elements of magical realism are carefully downplayed. Maybe some of these are a little predictable – like the mother’s hand coming down as Ciaran Fitzgerald is drowning – but Mike Newell succeeds in playing the film with considerable conviction. (Peculiarly, Jim Sheridan names the horse Tir na Nog, which in Irish legend is not an animal but a valley of mystical paradise where the hero travelled on a horse and found that time stood still). The villain of the piece is made too obsessive for credibility’s sake, but otherwise the script is beautifully written.
Gabriel Byrne plays very nicely, although the best performances come from the two boys, Ciaran Fitzgerald and Ruaidhri Conroy, who display complex emotions with considerable assurance. The casting of Gabriel Byrne’s real life American wife Ellen Barkin as an Irish woman is a more dubious prospect, although she never gets enough screen time enough to leave one room to decide.