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There’s nothing very dramatic about That They May Face the Rising Sun. Which is why it’s such a good film

Hugh Linehan: Stanley Kubrick said a film should be more like music than like fiction. The Irish director Pat Collins knows why that matters

That They May Face the Rising Sun has already been showered with praise in The Irish Times, and you’ll find no argument here. Pat Collins’s adaptation of John McGahern’s final novel, which opens in cinemas this weekend, is a remarkable achievement.

Speaking after a preview screening in Dublin a couple of weeks ago, Collins spoke about the challenge of making the transition from the meditative documentaries with which he made his name to the very different demands of a dramatic feature. Except it’s not a particularly dramatic feature. It would be wrong to say that nothing happens in That They May Face the Rising Sun. There is a wedding. There is a death. There are a couple of gentle moral quandaries. A shed gets built. But of the famed three-act dramatic structure beloved of Hollywood script gurus there is no sign.

Judging by his words that evening, Collins was relieved not to have to struggle under the oppressive tyranny of story and, I’m guessing, is not keen to try it in the future either. Which raises the question of whether there is sufficient space in modern film production for practices and forms outside the narrow parameters of the narrative mainstream, with its tortuous process of script development, financing and sales. One gathers from the producers that this was a tough film to develop and complete, so it is moot whether a similar project that did not have the literary cachet of its source material would have made it to the screen.

There is, of course, a place for narrative in our lives. Stories are our primary tool for making sense of a random, apparently meaningless universe. We will always have them. But our culture seems to be drowning in stories. Corporate brands spend millions developing and selling them to us in an effort to prove they’re more than just banks or phone companies. Politicians are nothing without them. Even the assertion that every society has “the right to tell its own story” instrumentalises culture as the blunt instrument of an ideological project that often elides as much as it illuminates.


“Story lulls,” Parul Sehgal wrote in a New Yorker article on “the tyranny of the tale” last year. “It encourages us to overlook the fact that it is, first, an act of selection. Details are amplified or muted. Apparent irrelevancies are integrated or pruned. Each decision is an argument, each argument an imposition of meaning, each imposition an exercise of power. When applied to history, it is a process that the late scholar Hayden White termed ‘emplotment’ – in which experience is altered when squeezed into even the most rudimentary beginning-middle-end structure.”

As Sehgal points out, the dangerous enticements and seductions of story have been criticised by everyone from Plato to Hannah Arendt. The entire modernist canon can be read as a rejection of narrative’s easy temptations. All of this is embedded in the history of cinema, the art form that many modernists saw as best suited to their project. A vigorous cinematic avant-garde always existed alongside the commercial mainstream. But the heyday of European art cinema passed more than a generation ago and was followed by a reaction (not entirely unjustified) against its apparent disdain for its audience.

The idea that the moving image could be more than a mere storytelling vehicle migrated out of the cinematheque and into the art gallery, where it has remained ever since. But something got lost along the way. A more expansive understanding of the art of film would encompass much more than its potential to deliver a linear narrative. It is of course a primarily visual form (which makes you wonder what it’s doing on the secondary-school English curriculum). But its melding of light, movement, montage and sound is the source of its particular and inherent potency.

“A film is – or should be – more like music than like fiction,” said Stanley Kubrick. “It should be a progression of moods and feelings. The theme, what’s beyond the emotion, the meaning, all that comes later.”

You couldn’t find a better description of the cumulative effect on the viewer of watching That They May Face the Rising Sun. Birdsong in a country lane. A boisterous wedding. A rosary for a dead neighbour. In most Irish films of the past few decades, these sequences would be freighted with a sense of what they will mean for the protagonists by the time the credits roll. But in Collins’s hands they take on a transcendental quality, an elegy for a disappearing world, for small acts of kindness. And, in its own quiet way, a rejection of the restrictions of “emplotment”.