Lakelands is the debut feature from Irish director/producer duo Robert Higgins and Patrick McGivney, up-and-coming talents who were profiled in the 2023 Irish Independent’s 50 Rising Stars list. The film stars Éanna Hardwicke (Vivarium, Normal People) and Danielle Galligan (Netflix’s Shadow and Bone), who deliver contrasting but equally impressive performances that will line them up for more great projects.
The film follows Cian (Hardwicke) as he navigates his small town existence—farming, drinking, Gaelic football—in the aftermath of a head injury sustained when he’s attacked on a night out. When Grace (Galligan), an old school friend who Cian hasn’t seen for five years, returns home to care for her sick father, Cian considers what might have been and what’s to come.
Thematically, Lakelands drifts with a latent sense of loss. The film opens in Cian’s bedroom, his walls and shelves full of childhood pictures and trophies, a shrine to his past sporting achievements. We switch to Cian’s current routine—farming in the morning, football in the evening and drinking at night—and it feels he will live this for the rest of his life. In Granard, a town in County Longford, the pace of life is slow. The town isn’t bleak, à la Ken Loach, but there’s a mundane or monotonous reality to activity: the pints, the derelict spaces, the hot-boxed cars. To put it simply, you play football until you coach football; you drink and dance until you sit and drink.
Lakelands is an introspective film. Cian is confident but struggles for real connections. Beyond relationships with his dad (Lorcan Cranitch) and his football mates, he seems most at peace in isolation—surrounded by open space. The film is meditative at times, particularly when Cian is outdoors. We delight in small moments of joy and connection, a sunrise or a kick through the posts, and the ambient score, composed by Daithi O’Dronai, accompanying these moments is quietly sublime.
In the stone-faced Cian, whose eyes burn with something adjacent to regret, there is deep disorientation. Due to the head injury, he has lost his immediate systems of meaning, drinking and sports, yet we get the impression he has suffered since leaving school. As Grace tells him, he hasn’t changed a bit—the suggestion is that he hasn’t grown. Cian is shot in probing close-ups with shallow focus, but he gives very little away. Is he thinking about the girls he didn’t call, the matches he was hungover for, the opportunities (or lack thereof) he had to leave? Part of the magic of Hardwicke’s performance is that it’s impossible to tell.
Galligan’s performance as Grace is outstanding. She’s expressive where Hardwicke is repressed and energetic where Hardwicke is reserved. The central relationship brims with an infectious chemistry, it is believable as well as being slowly devastating. Nevertheless, it is perhaps a testament to Galligan that the film needs more exploration of Grace’s life in London and how her experience of leaving home changed her, drawing out even more of Cian’s experience of staying in the process. Grace’s background feels somewhat underdeveloped, and her role in the story teeters on the edge of being derivative of the other characters.
Lakelands also has some confusing underlying messages. Though likely reaching for an intentional ambiguity, some story threads feel muddled towards the end—particularly conclusions on alcohol and male friendship. The film can also feel repetitive at points. Cian is placed in similar conversations, being given the same advice over and over again. This is seemingly a stylistic choice, but it feels overdone to the point of feeling laboured.
This being said, Lakelands is a powerful introduction to two of Ireland’s most exciting new filmmakers. The story is sufficiently familiar yet complex, enhanced by two noteworthy central performances. It avoids the tendency to collapse into simply advocating to leave or to stay home. The film does a tremendous job of depicting a young man wrestling with the paradoxical death-drive immortality that exists at the heart of small town life, the fallen indestructibility that consoles the gnawing feeling of not amounting to something—of never leaving home.