On A River in Ireland: Santa Barbara Review

A beautiful, relaxed look at a year in the life of the British Isles' longest river.  

Director and cinematographer John Murray journeys down Ireland's River Shannon to reveal the mood, rhythms of the seasons and subtle animal activity that would escape a casual visitor.

In distinct contrast to the prevalence of the violent, melodramatic and/or overtly political in recent nature documentaries, On A River in Ireland takes a gentle, patient and observational approach to its subject, the River Shannon.

The result of director/cinematographer John Murray having spent a full calendar year on the longest river in the British Isles, the film is attentive to beauty, mood, the rhythms of the seasons and subtle animal activity that wouldn't be noticed by the casual visitor. Reshaped from a series shown last May and June on the Irish RTE network, the feature film version has been making the rounds of nature festivals (it won the Jackson Hole event last August) prior to its Santa Barbara showing. PBS will premiere a U.S. TV version of it under the title Ireland's Wild River on the Nature series beginning Feb. 26.

From the evidence in the film, the PBS title is something of an exaggeration, as the Shannon, which splits Ireland into east and west for 224 miles, is hardly wild by objective standards. Most of what we see is quite placid, the recurring image being one of the genial Murray gliding in his canoe across calm water looking for the next secret of nature he can reveal.

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Although the encroachment of mankind is not entirely ignored, it's the timeless quality of river life that is front and center here, along with the special inhabitants that are captured in the wild, courtesy of some remarkable cinematography. Murray and his team have made exemplary use of Phantom high-speed cameras to grab mesmerizing slow-motion footage of the hunting abilities of the Kingfisher; the nocturnal emergence of water bats; the spawning of pike; chance encounters with foxes; the combat, mating and birthing of crayfish; the winter arrival of swans non-stop from Iceland; geese in flight; swarming birds and, most hilariously, the mosh pit that ensues when dozens of male frogs go to the limit to mate with a single female.

Much of Murray's narration is sotto voce, as if to raise his voice would disturb the creatures or the serenity of the landscapes. At his most banal, he speaks in admiring general terms about the wonders of nature, the beauty and preciousness of it all, and he sometimes exclaims like an excited kid over the various permutations of animal behavior.

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Avoiding fashionable environmental change talk, Murray instead makes the first-hand observations that seasonal predictability is disappearing, some flowers are now blooming twice a year, rain is absent for longer periods and egrets, which never before came to Ireland, have been arriving from Spain in ever-greater numbers in recent years.

Evidence of human life around the Shannon is scant in the film and Murray makes no mention of any direct threat to animal or plant life in or along the river; one gets the sense that what we see today is much the same as what locals would have beheld 100 or even 500 years ago -- a mostly wide body of water that's home to an impressively diverse array of life.

As the seasons pass from the fertile spring and abundant summer through the browning autumn toward the desolation of winter, the pace flags somewhat just as the narration becomes repetitive; some slight tightening to bring it down to the 90-minute mark would have helped. But patience is rewarded here by some truly outstanding animal footage and the very sense of serenity that many people seek when venturing into nature for real.

Venue: Santa Barbara Film Festival

Production: Crossing the Line Productions

Director: John Murray

Producer: Cepa Giblin

Director of photography: John Murray

Editor: Emer Reynolds

Music: Ronan O Snodaigh, Kila

99 minutes