On the Nose (2001)


Ireland/Canada. 2001.


Director – David Caffrey, Screenplay – Tony Philpott, Producers – Scott Kennedy & Tristan Orpen-Lynch, Photography – Paul Sarossy, Music – James Jandrisch, Special Effects -Team FX, Head – Shadow Creations, Production Design – David Fischer


Robbie Coltrane (Brendan Delaney), Dan Aykroyd (Dr Barry Davis), Eanne MacLean (Pete Doyle), Tony Briggs (Michael Miller), Jim Norton (Paddy Cassidy), Brenda Blethyn (Deidre Delaney), Zara Turner (Carol Lenahan), Don Baker (Albert Barclay), Sinead Keenan (Sinead Delaney), Glynis Barber (Anthea Davis), Owen O’Gorman (Teller)


Brendan Delaney, a porter at the Dublin College of Medicine, runs a gambling syndicate among his work colleagues. At a particular time every day, when sunlight falls upon it, the 200-year-old severed Aborigine head kept preserved in a jar of alcohol, turns and points its nose to one of the numbers painted on the jar and predicts which horse will win at the track that day. Brendan’s colleagues are making considerable earnings with these unerringly accurate predictions, although Brendan himself does not indulge due to a gambling problem in his past. When Brendan’s daughter earns a position at a prestigious college and he finds he does not have the money to pay for her tuition, he decides that he will risk one bet on the Grand National. However the plan is endangered by the arrival of an Aboriginal ambassador who has come to take the head back to his people, as well as the thugs employed by the local bookie who want to stop Brendan ‘fixing’ races and then decide to get in on the prediction business themselves.

On the Nose is the sort of comedy that was popular in England during the late 1940s. In fact, it would probably have been a perfect subject for the legendary Ealing Studios. During this era, there were a handful of entries made on the limited theme of being able to predict horse races in both the UK and the US – see My Brother Talks to Horses (1949), The Rocking Horse Winner (1947) and A Kid for Two Farthings (1955).

The film sets up all the elements of a zany and knockabout comedy. Yet while it keeps them all turning with appropriately farcical contortion, it as a film just sits there and refuses to get fired up. By comparison, an American mainstream comedy might have worked the same combination up to a zanily surreal pitch. On the Nose is a little too laidback and mannered and seems to lack an easy confidence in letting the comic contortions go for the big laughs. The characters are drawn in broad types – the youthful cocky upstart, the crankily eccentric old timer, the hero who has forsaken the game but must venture back and risk all one last time, the guilty adulterer and his bitch wife, the crime kingpin and his two hoods. None too surprisingly, everything ends with an easy predictability – the race is won, everybody gets what they were looking for and the thugs are embarrassed (although one wonders why they don’t just come back later on and beat Robbie Coltrane and family or any of the others up to get their money back as they have proven more than wont to do throughout the rest of the film).

The story also conveniently avoids mention of how the basic premise – the idea that a 200-year-old Aboriginal head in a jar could predict horse races – was ever discovered in the first place. When you consider the elements involved – placing the 200-year-old head in a jar that has numbers marked around its circumference, waiting for a set time of day where the head must then rotate and point to a particular number, and connecting that to the numbers in a race – the chain of deductive thinking it must have taken to get there is mind-boggling.

The limited roles waste a fair cast line-up that includes Dan Aykroyd (incongruously present in Dublin because the entire project was co-financed and partially shot in Canada), Brenda Blethyn and the great Robbie Coltrane. 2001 was a major cinematic breakthrough year for Robbie Coltrane with high profile parts in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001) and From Hell (2001). Alas, these are films that have only constrained Coltrane in undeserving bit parts rather than ones that have given his enormous talent room to shine. Coltrane has never quite found a screen vehicle to suit the full potential of his rivettingly charismatic presence as he did in the unsurpassed tv series Cracker (1993-6).

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