The film opens up on a tenement in working class Dublin. In one flat lies a mobility patient, her life dependent on the wheelchair which brings her to the outside; in another there’s a drug dealer, offering heroin to customers who are too young to afford it. Between them stands Leon (Barry Ward), now three years clean, an aspiring musician who wants to write about his struggles through song. He owes it all to Iver (Liam Carney), a man with the spirit and heart of a viking. Iver, it seems, saw the poet in Leon when the world painted him as a junkie, and the two have developed a bond that veers beyond friendship, which is why Leon is startled when he walks into Iver’s house to find a plastic bag over his head.
Startled, Leon is confronted by a nurse who informs him that Iver – battling an undisclosed illness – has been contemplating euthanasia for months. Leon is shocked: How can a Viking fly to Valhalla in a plastic bag? He strikes up a deal with the nurse: Together, they will spend one last day in Dublin, before returning home for Iver’s “exit”. The nurse (a pensive Maureen Beattie) reluctantly agrees, only for Leon to renege on his promise, and run off with the wheelchair bound Iver. Sunlight, Leon feels, is better than a plastic bag (“We’ll get you a new nurse,” Leon says; “A hotter one..”), and they return to the stables to admire the horses (and the women) who have entertained them in the past. As he attempts to mount his horse, Iver falls to the ground, proving the severity of his illness. Leon returns to the nurse with a more humble outlook: Maybe in this instance death is a gesture of kindness, not a curse?
Sunlight is not an ambiguous film – indeed, the director’s opinions are etched into the film from the opening frame. But it would wrong to write Sunlight off as a film about assisted suicide, since euthanasia only provides a backdrop to the story, and only serves to provide audiences with a reason to see these men in action. The love is palpable, and Iver has opted to spend his last day with Leon, and not with his ex, whom he has long wanted to make amends with. And then there’s Leon, only a prick away from returning to his life as a “junkie”, which serves to insult the commitment and the charity he has put so much of his soul into.
The story offers both actors their very own arc, and Ward in particular is brilliant, who hides his fragility behind bravado and boorish, ramshackled melodies. Yet he’s determined to focus on the pain, and by doing so, becomes the sponsor Iver hoped he would become. By the time the film enters the final act, Leon is determined to commit the ultimate act of love, helping his mentor find his purpose, voice and Valhalla.
Dublin hasn’t been this unvarnished in years, and the film recalls the desolate hopefulness found in Roddy Doyle’s books. But director Claire Dix also presents Dublin as a colourful city; a citadel of marble, brick and silver. Within these streets stands a canon of people aching to live in the moment, and although the two central characters carry a past with them, it doesn’t detract from their determination to focus on the present. Redemption holds many forms.
Sunlight is in cinemas across the nation on Friday, June 16th.