Behold the Lamb

'Like a diet of bitter herbs - this film leaves you unsatisfied,' writes Fionola Meredith

I didn't go to the Belfast Film Festival's closing night premiere of Behold the Lamb expecting it to be anything other than grim. You only had to look at the promotional picture to get a clue: a pale young woman with a pierced nose, badly-applied eyeliner and birds-nest hair, looking resentful against the backdrop of a leaden sky. Yep, this certainly wasn't going to be Mamma Mia.

And so it turned out. Director, John McIlduff, conjures up a world of almost unremitting bleakness in this eccentric mid-Ulster road movie.

It opens in the squalid interior of a steamed-up old Vauxhall Cavalier, a temporary home for two young drug addicts, Liz (Aoife Duffin) and Joe. Due to his unfortunate habit of urinating in the car, Joe's dog, Achilles - an unusual name for a junkie's mutt, you might think - has been left outside all night, and has frozen to death, his teeth set in an awful grin.

Soon afterwards, Joe's dad Eddie (Nigel O'Neill), an ex-accountant, turns up, causing Joe to run off screaming, and there follows a bizarre scene in which both Liz and Eddie end up bobbing around in the pond where the dead dog had been dispatched. These maudlin capers - caught somewhere between slapstick and tragedy - set the tone for the rest of the film.

Thereafter, Eddie and Liz set off on their strange mission. In a remote car park beside a public toilet, they meet a man who offers Eddie a live young lamb, wriggling and baa-ing in his arms - but only as long as taciturn Liz agrees to have sex with him in the toilet first, which, remarkably, she agrees to do.

It is at this point I first start sighing with frustration. Later, it turns out that the lamb is an unwitting drug mule (drug sheep?), Eddie is a keen bird-watcher with a propensity for epileptic fits, and Liz is struggling with a difficult relationship with her disabled son.

There are more capers involving Eddie rampaging through a muddy field in the twilight, desperately trying to find his missing drug-loaded lamb among a flock of sheep. But, by then, it doesn't seem to matter any more. I have sunk under the weight of all the tear-streaked pain, and just want it all to be over.

It's not that I have an animus against dark films. But it's when the misery itself appears to become the point - at the expense of compelling characters or a vibrant plot - that I lose patience.

And with its dead dogs, attempted rape scenes, depressed ex-accountants, disabled children and sad-eyed junkies, Behold the Lamb appears to almost make a fetish of misery. The mistaken assumption here seems to be that more bleakness equals more gravitas, more meaning, more profundity. But that's like a diet of bitter herbs - it leaves you unsatisfied, empty, and looking for something more.

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