What do we think about when we think about our own mortality, life and, ultimately, death? Fate? Legacy? The people that we love and that we leave behind? Suffering? Injustice? Responsibility? These are just some of the questions writer/director Robbie Walsh asks in his challenging, thoughtful and angry, but beautiful new film, The Letters.
Set against the backdrop of the CervicalCheck scandal that rocked the public’s faith in the Irish cancer care and screening program in the last decade, The Letters tells the fictional tales of three women, Cliona (Sarah Carroll), Sam (Mary Murray) and Mary (Kathleen Yeates), affected by the inaccurately negative results they receive following the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) smear tests carried out on them. Cliona is a career woman whose social anxiety and awkwardness stem from low level autism, Sam is a single-mother of four struggling with debt and Mary, a middle-aged carer for a mother in the latter stages of Alzheimer’s, already has a history with Ireland’s less than creditable care system past – having been offered up for adoption whilst her mother was ‘cared’ for in the Magdelene Laundries. There is obviously a sense of amalgam about these women, each drawn from dozens of actual stories, but they are never not real, they love, and they care, and they suffer and, each and every one of them, are so sensitively written and played that it is impossible not to understand or feel for them. We know the endings for these women and its sad inevitability but how each will face her fate is what gives them each such satisfying agency. It is a rare thing indeed to find such three-dimensional female characters in film nowadays, rarer yet to find three in one movie, to find three in one movie written by a man, rarest.
Along with the three wonderfully nuanced lead actors there is a strong supporting cast who all add further depth to the film and give it solid grounding. From an heart-wrenching portrayal of a lady suffering dementia (Mary’s mother played by Ann Russell) to Sam’s squabbling kids to Cliona’s resentful receptionist, all are written and played with great subtlety and an eye for reality. My only quibble with the film is that maybe the loan sharks and gangsters that Mary relies on for funds are a touch underwritten and lean toward stereotypes and maybe, just maybe, the film could have told Mary’s story without quite so much of them – like the shark in Jaws, just knowing they are there is enough. Other than the gangsters though, there are no broad brushstrokes here, just delicate and thoughtful details that embellish but don’t overpower.
Filmed almost entirely in black and white, with an intimate handheld camera aesthetic which allows us to enter these women’s troubled worlds, one could be fooled into believing that the film is dour and depressing yet there are moments of tenderness and humour and love and humanity and beauty, and you don’t have to look hard to find them. Without revealing too much of the film’s conclusion, there is a sudden and surprising turn to colour that is at once both breath-taking and emotionally satisfying as Walsh turns to paintings by Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas, John Everett Millais, Leonardo da Vinci, Jacques-Louis David and Andrey Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev to create inspirational and beautiful Tableaux Vivants that lift not only the spirit but the heart as well.
The Letters is a truly moving tribute to those women and their families who, through no fault of their own, lost (and continue to lose) their lives and a damning indictment of those agencies whose incompetence and neglect cost them everything. This is a movie you may never have heard of but one well worth tracking down, an important film that deserves a far wider audience than just its native Republic of Ireland.
The Letters (certificate 15A Ireland) will open in selected theatres – Odeon (Charlestown) Omni-PLex (Rathmines Dublin, Limerick, Cork) Eye Cinema (Galway) Movies@ (Swords, Dundrum) – on October 29th, 2021
Find out more on the official Facebook page – https://www.facebook.com/The-Letters-Feature-Film-103340362090770
Follow Writer/Director Robbie Walsh on Twitter @rbwlsh