'Rialto': Film Review | Venice 2019

Courtesy of Venice International Film Festival
'Rialto'
Beautifully written and acted.

Peter Mackie Burns ('Daphne') directed this adaptation of Mark O’Halloran's award-winning play 'Trade.'

Not even three weeks after losing his domineering father, a married Dubliner with two kids also loses his job. This story of real-life misery could play out in many different ways, but few would go in the specific direction of Peter Mackie Burns' Rialto, or would tell the story quite as delicately. The protagonist, who grew up in the eponymous Dublin neighborhood, fills the void caused by these unforeseen losses with a desire to explore his repressed sexual proclivities.

The feature is based on the play Trade, from Irish playwright and screenwriter Mark O'Halloran, which won the 2011 Irish Times Theatre Award for Best Play. O'Halloran — who also wrote such Emerald Isle delights as Adam & Paul and Garage — adapted his own work, and his screenplay is a beautifully observed story about fathers and sons, the impossibility of living up to others’ expectations and the possibility of turning the void caused by loss into something more positive. Rialto also features outstanding work from actors Tom Vaughan-Lawlor (Ebony Maw in the Avengers films) and Tom Glynn-Carney (Dunkirk) as, respectively, the middle-aged father and the teenage rent boy he unexpectedly falls for.  

Though Rialto isn't all that remarkable visually and there's just the slightest whiff of mothballs about the story, this Venice Horizons title is so beautifully written and performed it should do very well on both the general festival circuit and at LGBTQ-focused events. The U.K. premiere will take place in a few weeks at the London Film Festival. 

With his wife, Claire (the ever-dependable Monica Dolan), 46-year-old Dublin seaport worker Colm (Vaughan-Lawlor) has two nearly grown-up kids, Kerry (Sophie Jo Wasson) and the slightly younger Shane (Scott Graham). Their little family seems to be doing OK, even though Colm’s father passed away just a few weeks before the story starts. Suggesting immediately what kind of character Colm is, an early scene finds him in a shopping mall toilet cubicle with a peroxide-blond young hustler called Jay (Glynn-Carney). The pent-up desire and excitement to do something with the lad are clearly there, but Colm is completely out of his depth, has got no clue about how any of this works, and ends up apologizing a lot between each first-timer question and the next.

Colm probably didn't expect Jay, who has just had a baby with his 19-year-old girlfriend and is in desperate need of money, to show up the next day at Colm's office at the Dublin container company where he has worked all his life. But as elsewhere in the screenplay, O'Halloran takes what could have been a stock situation and refines and repurposes it to suggest something about the complexity of his characters and the messiness of life.

Jay knows where Colm works only because he left his wallet in the cubicle. Instead of going home with the wallet and its contents, Jay has done the right thing and brought it back to Colm. But then, in his office, he asks him for money in exchange for his silence. It's the beginning of an odd yet completely logical mutual dependency, as Colm takes a sexual interest in Jay, who is about 19, and Jay takes a pecuniary interest in Colm. The fact that he has lost his job in the meantime because of a merger adds to Colm's sense that the world as he knows it is crumbling around him even further, and the feeling that maybe he should think about himself every once in a while. 

Because the roles of both Colm, as a paying client, and Jay, as the sex worker, are so clearly defined, a safe space opens up between them where they don't have to lie about either who they are or what they want. This clarity, in turn, slowly leads to both men opening up honestly about other topics as well. With Colm burdened by the expectations at home — his mother needs his comfort after losing her husband; his wife needs a spouse; his kids expect him to be a dad — his sense of who he is outside his relationships has become practically erased.

O'Halloran suggests, frequently between the lines, that Colm had a difficult relationship with his father, an alcoholic who cheated on his mother, and that the fear of turning into his old man is related to his own drinking habit and the fact that he's afraid to get too close to his son, Shane. Similarly, Jay struggles to position himself in relationship to his offspring and adapt to his new role as a father, as his in-laws and girlfriend — who all remain offscreen — barely give him any room to care for his newborn daughter.

Burns and O'Halloran aren't interested in labeling the precise sexuality — bi, queer, gay or straight — of either Colm or Jay, and this particular point is, in the end, irrelevant. What counts is that paid gay sex has unexpectedly led the two men to a human encounter they needed in their lives. That said, Colm's overall story arc can't help but feel a little too familiar, as narratives about married men dealing with same-sex feelings aren't exactly something new. (It has to be noted that the play was written before Ireland passed the marriage equality amendment after a referendum vote in 2015.)

Both Vaughan-Lawlor, who has never looked quite this exhausted and as if life had passed him by, and Glynn-Carney, who is English but whose Dublin accent sounds convincing to these untrained ears, are superb as working-class men often too busy to consider who they are and what they want for themselves instead of for others. Their body language and the way they handle their dialogue always feel authentic and revealing. The way in which Vaughan-Lawlor deals with his new smartphone, for example, is more telling about his character than several pages of dialogue could ever be.

Ditto the way in which Colm finally tells one of his family members about what is going on in a scene that brims with unstated details that paint a much larger picture. The first person he decides to tell is a bad choice, objectively speaking, but it is an entirely logical and even cathartic one from the character's point of view, and so telling about how all the secrets and repressed desires have created a toxic environment for himself and those he loves. 

Almost as if to respect the working-class setting and outlook of the characters, who have little interest in beauty or the power of metaphors, the film's technical package is somewhat pedestrian. A lovely shot by cinematographer Adam Scarth (who also shot Mackie Burns' debut, Daphne), in which Colm surveys everything down below from the high vantage point of a container crane, only emphasizes how commonplace the rest of the film feels visually.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Horizons)
Production companies: Cowtown Pictures, The Bureau
Cast: Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, Tom Glynn-Carney, Monica Dolan, Sophie Jo Wasson, Scott Graham, Michael Smiley, Deirdre Donnelly, Eileen Walsch, Deirdre Molloy
Director: Peter Mackie Burns
Screenwriter: Mark O'Halloran, based on his play Trade
Producers: Alan Maher, John Wallace, Tristan Goligher, Valentina Brazzini
Director of photography: Adam Scarth
Production designer: Sarah Finlay
Costume designer: Allison Byrne
Editor: Tim Fulford
Sales: The Bureau

90 minutes