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Coming Home to Roost

Iona-movie-review-ruth-negga
Verve Pictures

MOVIE REVIEW
Iona (2016)

This is a very capable small Scottish film, but it is let down by two things: The first is the obvious plot developments — they are meant to be twists, but perhaps only to people who know nothing of human nature. The second is that the title character (Ruth Negga), who was awkwardly named after the island where she was born and raised, is the only mixed-race person in the film.

We first see Iona in a car on a ferry, in silence, with a young man we eventually learn is her son Billy, known as Bull (Ben Gallagher). They burn the car, walk through the Scottish wilds to a second ferry and then walk to the remote farmhouse on the island of Iona where Daniel (Douglas Henshall) lives. Iona is so out of touch that she doesn’t know Daniel’s wife died more than a decade ago, or that Daniel’s daughter, her friend Elizabeth (Michelle Duncan), has married another old friend, Matthew (Tom Brooke), with whom she has a teenage daughter, Sarah (Sorcha Groundsell). But she is welcomed back with open arms, and no one asks any questions.

Writer-director Scott Graham was probably furious when the series “Glue” aired on British cable last year, as it had a similar feel and some of the same plot developments. He might even have been outraged to discover that Iona is the second movie this year (“Deadpool” being the other) to reference the restaurant chain T. G. I. Friday’s in some detail; in this case, Iona was a waitress in its Glasgow branch for years. It’s a bit difficult to tolerate some of the plot developments, which are entirely dependent on no one in the movie using social media. Obviously remote island life is not incredibly well-connected, but the film pushes this past believability. Life for Daniel’s family circles around farming and church life. Iona loathes religion and argues with Bull when he begins to ask questions, but immediately attends services with Daniel anyway. Most ridiculously of all, the teenage Sarah lost the use of her legs in a childhood accident, but never complains that her only method of transport is being carried piggy-back by her father.

Being mixed-race in Scotland (or indeed Ireland, where Ms. Negga is from) is not unusual but hardly unremarked-upon. In an isolated island community, she would have felt even more singled out growing up than the character was meant to; and it’s a strange choice to be silent on this. It’s an equally strange choice to believe that a religious family would be enough to quelch a teenage girl’s wish to move herself around autonomously: How on earth has poor old Sarah had been using the loo all these years? If Sarah’s physical disability is meant to be a metaphor along the lines of Iona’s struggles with her faith, that would be deeply uncool; but Mr. Graham’s intentions are muddy. For example, he might have considered that if Iona was truly seeking an anonymous hideout for herself and her son, a different city might have been a wiser choice.

But then Mr. Graham could not have explored a quieter way of life, where there are cows in the fields, a big sky overhead and everyone goes together to work in the strawberry polytunnel, then to church, then to a ceilidh in the church hall. This is not the life Bull imagined for himself, certainly, although meeting Sarah does begin to change his mind. Ms. Groundsell is very good, in her first film, as a literal helpless ingénue who is just waking up to what she is capable of. Bull treats her cruelly, but it could have been much worse.

The movie would also have been much worse without Ms. Negga in the lead. She has something of the otherworldly air that Natalie Press and Samantha Morton sometimes share, especially in their roles where they play outsiders in Scotland. Ms. Press was an English transplant in Glasgow in the criminally underrated “Red Road,” while Ms. Morton played a Scottish part with her own English accent in “Morvern Callar.” Their outsiderness was clear but also never commented on. But both those movies were made by women: Andrea Arnold’s was about women using men for their own hidden agendas, while Lynne Ramsay’s film was about a young woman leaning into her alienation. Mr. Graham’s movie is about an older woman making a last-ditch attempt to belong in the place where she grew up. As they say, home is where — when you have to go there — they have to take you in. But when the filmmakers try to push an agenda instead of a genuine plot, their characters stop being real people and become passive victims carried on others’ backs.

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