Phil on Film Index

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Review - The Tiger's Tail

"We've got the Celtic Tiger by the tail" Liam O'Leary (Brendan Gleeson) announces early in John Boorman's Irish oddity, "and if we let go now it'll turn around and bite us in the arse". This premonition is certainly true for O'Leary himself, a man who has taken advantage of the booming Irish economy to establish himself as a property magnate worth millions. He has a grand house, a beautiful wife (Kim Cattrall) and an intelligent, if stroppy, teenage son (Gleeson's own offspring Briain). When the film opens Liam is receiving an award for his entrepreneurial success and he uses this platform to criticise the officials who are standing in the way of his new project, a national football stadium he intends to build on a site he has recently purchased for €45 million.

On the surface Liam appears to have it all, but his life is a lie. His company is financially stretched to breaking point by the stadium project, his marriage has gone stale, and he has a fractious relationship with his anti-capitalist son. Life then takes a turn for the surreal when Liam starts spotting his doppelganger - a scruffier, meaner-looking version of himself - and although most people suspect it might just be the stress finally getting to him, the double quickly turns out to be very real. He wants his more successful look-alike's life, and he begins stealing Liam's identity with bewildering speed; cuckolding his wife and leaving the former millionaire on the streets without a penny or a friend to turn to.

Oh, what rich potential is being squandered here. As a longstanding John Boorman fan - particularly of his previous Dublin-based film
The General - I couldn't wait to see what this always-interesting director would do with the multitude of possibilities offered by this story. Unfortunately he makes a complete hash of it. The Tiger's Tail is an existential drama, a thriller, a knockabout comedy and a social parable - it's all of these things and less.

Boorman's main aim with
The Tiger's Tail is to expose the rotten underbelly to the massive economic growth Ireland has experienced since the early 1990's. Liam O'Leary has ridden the metaphorical Celtic Tiger to a life of luxury, using every trick in the book to make his riches ("whatever happened to good old honest corruption?" he moans in the opening scene), but Boorman wants us to see how uneven the distribution of wealth has been for those outside of the wealthy top rank. Liam's gruff double represents the masses who are on the outside looking in, and when this stranger (during the film 'X' is as close as we get to a name) looks at Liam's life he wonders why it isn't he who is experiencing this lifestyle. After 'X' has forced the switch of roles between the pair, both men get to see how the other half live. Liam spends time in a halfway house run by his old friend Father Andy (a reliably fine Ciarán Hinds), gets arrested, gets institutionalised, and finds himself in an overrun and understaffed hospital ward. For his part The Double finds out that his new life isn't the dream it appears to be, and his attempts to swipe some ready cash out of the situation are doomed by the fact that Liam's empire has been built on debt and dishonesty.

This all too obvious, though. These points may be relevant and potent, but Boorman makes them in a horribly heavy-handed and didactic way. The director goes for blatant signifiers in order to ram home his argument, and too much of his dialogue rings false as the issues are spelled out. In particular, the character of Connor, Liam's politicised son, is barely a character at all, more a mouthpiece for various cautionary slogans and clichés (until his story takes a turn for the dramatic late on when it's far too late to care about him); and Boorman's staging of many sequences - such as the bloody and raucous hospital setting - is too overblown to connect with anything recognisably real.

The film's failure to land any satirical punches isn't necessarily its downfall though - the crummy plotting and unsure tone does that job nicely. In the early stages the intriguing nature of the central double-act's relationship is enough to keep the film flowing, but when the two men switch places Boorman has a tough time keeping his narrative in check. The plotting gets increasingly stretched as Boorman tries to manouevre his two Brendan Gleesons into a series of contrived situations, and many of the developments are hard to swallow (The Double can seemingly make huge purchases in Liam's name just by looking like him).
The Tiger's Tail does benefit from the introduction of Liam's mother and sister - both Sinéad Cusack and Moira Deady give lovely performances - but other characterisations are sketchily developed, with a half-arsed office romance between Sean McGinley and Cathy Belton feeling unnecessary.

On the plus side,
The Tiger's Tail does have Brendan Gleeson, and this eminently watchable actor is clearly having a great time in the film's two central roles. As Liam O'Leary Gleeson is arrogant and selfish before he is brought low by circumstances, and the actor charts his character's changing perspective with a growing sense of charm and humour. As his own nemesis, Gleeson doesn't gives us much more than pugnacious ruffian with a growling Yorkshire twang to his accent, but it's another fun portrayal, and Gleeson is certainly more accomplished than his female lead at least - an unfathomably-cast Kim Cattrall. She certainly is a bizarre choice for the role of Liam's uptight Irish wife and she is never less than awkward in the role. Her Irish accent occasionally sounds plausible, but it tends to waver without a moment's notice and one can sense a permanent strain in her voice as she struggles to keep it in check. Cattrall is also at the centre of the film's most deeply misguided moment - when The Double enters her bedroom as Liam and forces her into bed. It's a scene which skirts dangerously close to rape before Cattrall begins moaning in ecstasy, delighted at Liam's new-found sexual voracity.

This sequence is the worst of the innumerable bad choices Boorman makes as he fights a losing battle with the film's conflicting styles and tones. The director doesn't seem to have a clue what kind of movie he's making here, and instead of taking us on the dark journey which his establishing scenes seem to promise, he tries to graft a happy ending onto the film in which everyone gets to share having learned some important lessons about life. John Boorman has made a number of bad movies during his eclectic career, but rarely have I felt such a keen sense of disappointment after viewing one of his films.
The Tiger's Tail is a result of the director's passion and ambition, but in trying to pack so much into his State of the Nation piece Boorman loses direction badly, letting the story's potential slip through his fingers as he frantically chases his own tail.