Our story takes place in 1845 on the misty Irish coast. The potato blight is quickly destroying crops and people are facing starvation. A fisherman called Colman (Donall O Healei) lives a mostly peaceful life with his wife and daughter, until his landlord increases his taxes. The ruthless and greedy Englishman was aware that the potatoes were rotting and that poor people such as Colman could hardly feed themselves, let alone pay out more money. His attitude epitomises that of the British Empire, who infamously allowed nearly two million people (nearly a quarter of the country’s population) to perish.
Colman decides to meet up with his landlord in the hope to find a peaceful solution, but violence unexpectedly erupts as a fellow Irishman decides to do justice with his own hands. The allegiance of certain Irishmen is very ambiguous. Many had joined the British army and fought for the Empire in the various wars overseas, therefore earning certain privileges. Will they once again stand by the reckless and murderous colonisers (and keep their privileges) or will they this time side with their very own people?
After the bloodshed, Colman runs away and lives inside a cave on the seashore, presumably hiding from authorities. He takes an orphan with him, a girl called Kitty. Progressively, the starvation escalates. Colman’s wife and child have passed away, and so have many locals. Potatoes are gone and all the barnacles have been eaten. Locals resort to extreme measures in order to feed themselves. An elderly man is killed for his blanket. All traces of humanity gradually vanish. Plus winter is approaching, which could seriously compromise Colman’s and Kitty’s meagre chances of survival.
Almost entirely spoken in Gaelic, Monster examines the most traumatic moment in the history of Ireland. It’s filmed on the dramatically craggy coast of the nation. The landscape is impressive yet threatening. The waters of the sea are just as turbulent as the lives of people. The soil is barren and damp. Beautiful Irish songs and chants add a nice and gentle touch to the tragic environment.
The narrative, however, has quite a few loopholes. It’s never entirely clear how Colman’s family died, how he ended up with Kitty, and why it took the child two years before she told him her name. There are also problems with make-up and casting. Some of the starving people (including Kitty) are the picture of health, with rosy cheeks and a fit figure. The horrific symptoms of diphtheria, dysentery, cholera, smallpox, the flu and many other diseases that were decimating the Irish people are not very realistic. As a result, the movie often feels artificial and contrived.
Monster showed in Competition at the 23rd Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival, when this piece was originally written. It’s in cinemas on Friday, October 15th (2021).