Charting the undercurrents of a remote island, Scott Graham’s tale of return Iona is a dazzling portrait of the wilds of the Scottish isle.
Notes From A Small Islandby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
The bleak beauty of the Hebridean island landscape of Iona sets the prevailing mood for Scott Graham’s second feature, following his well-received Shell, also set in Scotland. As the film starts, Iona (Ruth Negga) takes her 15-year-old son Bull (Ben Gallagher) back to her namesake island where she was born and which she left as a teenager. As Iona reconnects with her past in the small, close-knit community, there’s a pervading sense of disquiet and tension that only very slowly becomes clearer.
The film’s pace is slow and quiet, like the island. Dialogue is sparse – and its sparseness powerfully implies that there is much that still cannot be said even after the passing of time. There are unexplained undercurrents of some kind between Iona and crofter Danny (low-key Douglas Henshall), whose house Iona used to live in and where she now returns. Iona used to share a bedroom with his daughter Elisabeth (Michelle Duncan), who is now married and living in Iona’s deceased mother’s house, and who seems to have an initially unexplained antagonism towards Iona.
While Iona’s arrival seems to discomfort the isolated, religious families who knew her before she left, her son Bull is drawn to Elisabeth’s 14-year-old daughter Sarah (Sorcha Groundsell), who has lost the use of her legs and is carried around by her father Matthew (Tom Brooke) on his back. Sensitive to the strong religious influence of the community, Bull finds faith for the first time and there are hints of a miracle.
Why did Iona leave the island 15 years ago? Why has she now left her home in Glasgow so suddenly to return there? There are tantalising, almost subliminal flashbacks of violence that gradually appear. Ultimately, several interwoven story lines emerge with Iona as the catalyst, any of which could have benefited from being more developed, and two of which finally are resolved in melodramatic incidents.
Performances throughout are strong. As Iona, Ruth Negga is tortured yet enigmatic. Ben Gallagher and Sorcha Groundsell make outstanding debuts. But the overriding impression is of the atmospheric setting and Yoliswa von Dallwitz’s stunning cinematography – a love affair with the landscape, which makes the waves curling on the island’s beaches, the rocky outcrops, grey stone buildings, undulating grassy meadows and wide horizons intrinsic to the plot.
Iona is released on 25th March 2015 in the UK