Into The West was released thirteen years ago so it might seem odd to be writing a review of it at this time. But I thought there could be interest for a couple of reasons. One, the director was Mike Newell, who has just wrapped shooting of the newest Harry Potter feature Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and two it’s that rarest of creatures, a movie for the whole family.
Although the young stars of Into The West are younger than their counterparts in Goblet of Fire, the movie show that Newell, even in the early stages of his career, could elicit natural performances from child actors. Instead of the mugging for the camera tactics that are so prevalent in Hollywood movies featuring children – Home Alone springs to mind – the children in this film are believable within the context created for them by the script.
Into The West tells the story of a widowed Irish gypsy (better known as Tinkers, or Travellers) named Papa Reilly (Gabriel Byrne at his brooding darkest best) and his two young sons, Ossie (Ciaran Fitzgerald) and Tito (Ruaidhri Conroy). After his wife died giving birth to Ossie, Papa has taken the boys off the road and joined the world of the “settled” folk.
Life in the settled world is living in council flats, lying to the welfare people, and the children begging for food money when their parents have drunk away the checks. Papa is slowly drowning his sorrows in the bottom of a glass, falling away from his former glory of King of The Gypsies.
Into this mess enters the boys’ grandfather. (David Kelly, who looks the same then as he does in the more recent Waking Ned Devine) Grandfather still lives on the road in a caravan pulled by a horse. In his travels he has acquired a beautiful and mysterious white horse that immediately befriends Ossie.
Living in a council flat and keeping a horse is not the most compatible of situations. Eventually the police are called to impound the horse. But as they attempt to pack the horse into the van to haul it away, it briefly breaks free and demonstrates an innate talent for jumping by leaping a parked police car.
You can see the dollar signs roll up into the eyes of the police inspector leading the impounding squad. All he need do is coerce Papa into signing the horse over to him so he can sell it. Brendan Gleason (who will be playing Mad-Eye Moody in Goblet of Fire is all bigotry and violence as the corrupt Inspector Bolger, so it comes as no surprise to see him force Papa to put his X on the deal agreeing to the transfer of ownership.
The boys are devastated, Ossie in particular, as the horse had miraculously cured him of his asthma. One day while browsing in a video store they see their precious horse on television being ridden in a showjumping contest.
When Papa is hauled into the police station to be shown the clip of his sons calling the horse off the course and riding off into the west towards freedom, his face comes alive for the first time in the movie. Of course the forces of law and order, and the industrialist who bought the horse, won’t just let our boys run away with the prize horseflesh, and the chase is on to catch the outlaws.
Papa is forced to return to the people he turned his back on in a desperate attempt to find his sons before the police and others. Although there is reluctance to help him, he finds two allies in the form of Kathleen (Eileen Barkin) and Barreller (Colm Meany of Deep Space Nine fame), who are willing to aid in tracking the children down.
But it’s more than just the trail of the children Papa ends up following; he’s following a trail that will bring him back home to his people. Mysteriously the horse is taking the boys along one of the traditional routes taken by the Travellers, including a stop at the grave of their dead mother.
Grandfather had told the boys that the horse had come from Tir na nOg, a mythical Irish land of eternal joy to the west of Ireland that could only be reached through death or feats of glory. Ossie had named the horse for its mythical birthplace, and it seemed to live up to its magical origins by showing a unique ability to elude pursuit, and laying a trail through particular places for Papa to follow.
Grandfather has long accused Papa of abandoning the spirit of his late wife by ignoring the traditional funeral ritual of burning her caravan upon her death. Papa has fought long and hard to forget the pain of losing the woman he loved, but the horse seems intent on breaking down that wall.
Everything comes to a head on the west coast of Ireland. The boys and Tir na nOg , the police, the private army of the industrialist, and Papa, Kathleen, and Barreller all converge on the same narrow stretch of beach. Apparently panicked the horse plunges into the ocean waves carrying Ossie on her back.
While Papa is frantically searching for Ossie under the waves after he is swept from the horse’s back, the camera cuts to a scene of the small boy floating under water; a woman’s hand and arm appears, and pulls Ossie up to the surface to be found and revived on the beach by his father.
But Tir na nOg, the horse has disappeared. She has gone back to where she came from now that her job is done. The movie ends with the burning of the mother’s caravan. The family is reunited with their heritage and can start over again.
The opportunity for this film to slip into mawkishness or sentimentality is avoided primarily through the work of the director in ensuring that not once does the movie stray from its gritty depiction of the life of travellers in Ireland. No romantic gypsies with kerchiefs and other elaborate costumes for this movie.
The encampment that Papa goes to recruit help from is made up of mobile homes that have seen better days, and a very few old-fashioned carriages. It is a movie about magic of a different sort than Harry Potter’s, one based in the world of a people’s lives and mythology not spells and potions.
It is truly a movie that people of all ages would enjoy. The performances are consistently believable and the story moves along at a good pace while never sacrificing content for speed. These are all factors that bode well for the quality of the upcoming Harry Potter and The Goblet Of Fire, in which there will be a need to cram lots of information and story into the constraints of a 21/2 hour movie.
Mike Newell has proven himself in the interim as being capable of telling a story and eliciting excellent performances from his actors in such movies as Four Weddings and a Funeral, Donnie Brasco, and Pushing Tin. Fans of the Harry Potter series can look forward to the second well-directed movie in the series following hard on the heels of a great Prisoner of Azakaban
Into The West is worth seeing based on its own merits. For those of you who would like to preview the work of the man who has been entrusted with part four of your beloved Harry, this will make a good introduction. Either way, it’s well worth watching, and even more remarkably holds up to repeated viewings.