by Padraic Coffey
One cannot help but feel protective towards the Irish film industry. Given the paltry amount of money allocated to the Arts – we are a nation of less than five million taxpayers, after all – it is all the more challenging for Irish filmmakers to match the best efforts of our European neighbours. That said, 2012 has not been a great year for Irish cinema. Terry McMahon’s Charlie Casanova was almost universally panned by critics, with Time Out, The Guardian and Total Film awarding it their lowest possible rating. Jon Wright’s Grabbers attempted a Shaun of the Dead-style comedy horror, but fell flat in a sea of begorrah clichés. And now Kirsten Sherdian brings us Dollhouse, a film likely to leave audiences wondering how the person behind Disco Pigs and In America could have produced a work of such little value.
The ‘plot’ – to employ a term that is of no relevance to Dollhouse whatsoever – involves a group of inner-city teenagers who forcibly enter a lavish Dalkey apartment overlooking the sea, and proceed to vandalise the furniture, raid the drinks cabinet and generally destroy all in their path. The motivations behind this barbaric act of criminality are not explored, at least until we learn that the most muted member of the group, Jeannie (Seána Kerslake), had previously lived here with her parents. The extreme racket caused by the revelry attracts the attention of neighbouring teen Robbie (Jack Reynor), who has his own elusive history with Jeannie. Rather than inform on the quintet, Robbie joins them for the remainder of their visit.
Dollhouse continues an obsession with class division in 21st Century Ireland, as demonstrated in John Crowley’s Intermission, which borders on the tedious. The appearance of Eanna (Johnny Ward), the most thuggish member of the group, could be a direct reference to Colin Farrell’s character Lehiff from Crowley’s film; both share a shaven head, neck tattoo and sufficiently tacky jewellery. However, lest viewers feel that the working class are the sole victims of stereotyping in Dollhouse, along comes Robbie, with his buttoned cardigan and finely-knotted scarf. True, the film may be using cinematic shorthand to inform international viewers of the discrepancies between modern Irish (nay, Dublin) youth, but to a native audience these unsubtle costume choices smack of laziness.
In truth, superficial elements such as clothing are as close to characterisation as Dollhouse provides. Cinema need not spoon-feed its audience back story, but when a film offers not even a single sympathetic character, viewers may well ask why they should care. The rather implausible shifts in mood, perhaps attributable to the crowd’s copious intake of cocaine and marijuana, do not help matters. Scenes of the gang passionately locking lips and indulging in Class A drugs evoke obvious influences such as Channel 4 series Skins or, less recently, Larry Clark’s Kids. What may have been shocking in 1995, however, seems blatantly exhibitionist in 2012.
Sheridan’s previous credits as writer and director display evident talent, and an artistic eye is visible throughout Dollhouse, such as in deliberately jarring switches between noise and silence, or the most memorable set piece, when Jeannie’s former bedroom is literally turned upside down. The choice of music, however, leaves something to be desired: Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King is trotted out to instil a sense of foreboding, while children’s choir versions of Pure Imagination and I’m Into Something Good are rather bizarre affectations. Regardless of whatever success Dollhouse may muster among critics or the box office, the lack of a compelling or cohesive narrative is likely to alienate viewers, who wait in vain for a truly great depiction of contemporary adolescence to emerge with funding from the Irish Film Board.