‘I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree, And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made; Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee, And live alone in the bee-loud glade. And I shall have some peace there…’ Regular readers will notice a change in tone from my usual introductions, but these are not my words; these are the words of the great poet William Butler Yeats, as featured in Death of a Ladies Man, a serio-comic look at life and death released in the UK this week. Made in 2020, it’s one of many films with a somewhat benighted release pattern due to the Covid, but still worth seeking out.
Gabriel Byrne plays a welcome lead role as Samuel O’Shea, a womanising poetry professor of the ilk of Gowan McGland in the film Rueben Rueben. That’s a bit of an obscure reference, but even if you’ve not seen Tom Conti’s Oscar nominated performance in that film, you’ll know O’Shea’s type. He vomits into a plastic bin in front of his horrified students, who tremulously offer him a balm in the form of a breath-mint. He tells his doctor of his alcohol consumption; the daily figures for drink-downing are estimated to be in the twenties and thirties. O’Shea is estranged from his family, (his daughter offers a laconic toast to the ‘patriarchy’ ) but he is forced back into their orbit when adultery ruins a relationship and O’Shea ends up returning to his nest at Christmas to reveal a secret; he’s potentially looking at a terminal diagnosis, and a reckoning is on hand…
If that all sounds bleak, like some Hallmark ‘disease of the week’ special on the dangers of alcoholism, then it’s not; we don’t go down the route of specialists and tubes and palliative care. In fact, the melancholy end that comes to Samuel O’Shea is entirely unpredictable yet avoidable. But as played by Gabriel Byrne, O’Shea is a three-dimensional character, an ‘operator’ by his own description, but also worth our compassion as he falls from grace. O’Shea hallucinates skating angels at an ice-hockey match, drinking with Frankenstein’s monster, conversations with his dead father (Brian Gleeson), possibly one more woman (Jessica Paré), and who knows what else; there’s also a number of musical interludes caused by his hallucinations, all themed to the music of Leonard Cohen.
“I would like to remind the management that the drinks are watered and the hat-check girl has syphilis and the band is composed of former ss monsters However since it is New Year’s Eve, and I have lip cancer, I will place my paper hat on my concussion and dance” is one of the many Cohen quotes used here, and captures the tone of a film which dramatises the pathos of a flawed man railing against the dying of the light. A canny structure allows us to see beyond O’Shea’s spiky, rebarbative personality and see how his drinking effects his family, and while the results are not flattering, they feel honest. Matthew Bissonnette’s film should appeal to those who enjoy a literate character study, but unlike some past iterations of bawdy characters, we get to see in real time how time, life and things generally catch up with Samuel O’Shea. Shot in and around a wintry Montreal, this delivers on the promise of some stark whimsy, helped by a fairly monumental performance from the always welcome Byrne.
Blue Finch Film Releasing presents Death of a Ladies’ Man on Digital Download from 25 July 2022.