By Michael Gray
When the three Roddy Doyle novels that comprise his Barrytown Trilogy were successfully adapted for the big screen, two of them by Doyle himself, it was inevitable that the prolific Irish author would soon try his hand at writing directly for film.
His first original screenplay, "When Brendan Met Trudy," was shot last year, and is a romantic comedy set in contemporary Dublin. The film’s director, feature film newcomer Kieron J. Walsh, takes a lighter look at Dublin life than we’ve seen in the earlier Doyle adaptations — all of them comedies, but laced with serious themes and gritty realism.
Moving away from Doyle’s usual turf in the Northside’s working-class suburbs, the action unfolds for the most part in the Celtic Tiger social hub of Temple Bar and the middle-class environs of Dublin’s Southside. Like Doyle himself before writing became a full-time occupation, the male lead character, Brendan (Peter McDonald), is a secondary school teacher who loves films and music. He’s a forlorn creature in the classroom, unable to remember his pupils’ names, much less teach them anything, and scorned by his colleagues as a Luddite on account of his aversion to computers.
The titular object of his affections, Trudy (Flora Montgomery), claims to be a teacher as well, when the two meet for the first time in a pub on his way home from choir practice. A loud, aggressive country girl to his shy city introvert, Trudy cadges a pint off Brendan and cajoles him into singing Cesar Franck’s "Panis Angelicus" right there and then in the pub. From this quirky beginning, the pair fling themelves into a torrid and turbulent romance.
The turbulence follows when Brendan finds out that far from being a Montessori teacher, Trudy makes her living on the wrong side of the law, and to keep her interested in him, he has to become her accomplice on a crime spree. Horrified and exhilarated at this transformation in himself, Brendan finds himself propelled from passive spectator of movie videos to active participant in a dangerous cinematic adventure. Against his cautious choirboy nature, he goes along for the ride, despite seeing enough movies in his lifetime to know that characters like him in that kind of role usually end up in deep trouble.
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Passion for film
From its borrowed and modified title and its "Sunset Boulevard" opening, to its "Midnight Express" freeze-frame ending, "When Brendan Met Trudy" wears its cinematic references lightly but proudly on its sleeve. Doyle’s script evolves from his own passion for film much as "The Commitments" did from his love of music, but in a tongue-in-cheek manner that requires no detailed knowledge of cinema history.
Quotations from classics of Europe and Hollywood crop up on a regular basis in Brendan’s head, on his VCR and in his local cinema, providing his main frame of reference in dealing with the outside world. On a more subtle level, Ashley Rowe’s lighting and camerawork pay homage to the visual style of these classics as romance transforms Brendan’s brown-and-gray habitat into the vivid, colorful soundstage he shares with Trudy. Rowe gives the film a sophisticated glossy shimmer that belies its modest budget, and helps to launch the film over the top when Brendan’s fantasy world and his reality collide. He imagines himself and Trudy to be reckless and impulsive like his screen heroes Jean Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg in Jean-Luc Godard’s "Breathless," speaking in French as they swagger down the street, thieving their way through Georgian Dublin. The film is at its best when it weaves these classic scenes into the narrative, but such moments are all to scarce in a comedy constantly held in check by its director even as the script demands to be let loose and go just a little bit crazy.
The author’s passion for celluloid art curdles in the character of film buff
Brendan — a movie bore rather than a movie fan, his love of film manifests itself more as a trainspotter’s obsessive quantifying of dates, names and facts than a joyous celebration of a popular art form. As for Trudy, she doesn’t know Godard from Bogart, and couldn’t care less. Brendan’s best efforts at enlightening her about the wonders of cinema come across as pompous teacherly condescension, and she dismisses his interest in cinema by accusing him in the same breath of being a film buff and a forceps delivery.
But Trudy is the dominant force in the relationship, and her indifference to his film fetish inevitably results in Brendan pursuing her interest in crime, otherwise they won’t get to spend much quality time together. The upshot is that his interest in film is too easily perceived solely as a way of hiding from the world until his lonesome bachelor phase ends, and he can find something else to do with his paramour, like stealing stuff.
To make romantic comedy work, the director has to convince the audience that the characters are really feeling the feelings that the script says they are, and then make us want their love to succeed. We don’t have to fall in love with them just because they’re falling in love with each other, but it doesn’t hurt to make the protagonists more than a little empathetic.
Flora Montgomery gives a robust performance as Trudy, and the laconic Peter McDonald has a suitably Buster Keatonesque response to the criminal madness around him that served him well previously opposite Brendan Gleeson’s motormouth character in "I Went Down." They’re both fine actors, but they’re hard to warm to in this romance.
It’s difficult to see what a vulgar abrasive woman like Trudy sees in the corduroy-wearing, brown Datsun-driving nerd Brendan, beyond the carnal impulses that spark so many relationships in their early stages. The appeal for him is easier to see — he doesn’t know any girls, she’s one, and she’s interested in him. The challenge to sustain a credible romance between this mismatched pair is not taken up by the director, and he fails to take the risks necessary to make it succeed.
Maybe next time the prolific and versatile Doyle, producer as well as scriptwriter on this film, and a recent appointee to the Irish film board, will take up that challenge himself and direct his own script.