Rialto review: Peter Mackie Burns finds a haven for two unlikely lovers

A Dublin docker’s midlife crisis drives him into the arms of a desperate teenage hustler in Peter Mackie Burns’s low-key drama about masculinity in crisis.

Rialto premieres in the UK on 5 October at the BFI London Film Festival

Jamie Dunn

Tom Vaughan-Lawlor as Colm and Tom Glynn-Carney as Jay in Rialto

Tom Vaughan-Lawlor as Colm and Tom Glynn-Carney as Jay in Rialto

“What would happen if we told people what was really going on in our heads?” Colm (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), a 46-year-old Dublin dock worker, drunkenly muses to his supportive, increasingly concerned wife (Monica Dolan).

She’s right to worry. Her hubby is going through one hell of a rough patch. His domineering father has recently died and, at work, a merger with a Dutch shipping firm looks likely to threaten the job he’s had since leaving school. When Colm climbs to the top of the dock’s highest crane, it’s only to scream his frustrations, which is probably a more healthy option than the cheap Polish lager he’s using to self-medicate.

It’s in this maelstrom that Colm decides to begin experimenting with his sexuality for the first time, picking up Jay (Tom Glynn-Carney), a 19-year-old hustler. Their first encounter in a shopping mall toilet doesn’t go well. Colm rushes off minus his wallet, meaning Jay now knows both his address and place of work, information this desperate-for-cash teen will use to his advantage.

Vaughan-Lawlor as Colm

Vaughan-Lawlor as Colm

There are shades of recent spring-autumn gay romances such as Robin Campillo’s Eastern Boys and Lorenzo Vigas’s From Afar in the initial setup. The difference here is that it’s not clear that either man would identify as gay. Both are in loving, if strained, relationships with women, with whom they have children – Colm has two teens roughly Jay’s age, and Jay has a newborn.

Rialto fits snugly into the careers of its chief creators. Like director Peter Mackie Burns’ debut feature Daphne (2017), a lively character study about a carefree young woman having an existential crisis after witnessing a stabbing, this is a movie about a life in free-fall. Writer Mark O’Halloran, meanwhile, has explored the crisis of masculinity facing Irish men in sharp tragicomedies Adam & Paul (2004) and Garage (2007).

What sets Rialto apart from their earlier work is its lack of comic zest. Here the mood is blunt and dourly realistic, with scenes playing out in flinty half-conversations. At work and home, Colm struggles to connect with the people around him as his mistruths about the young man who’s been seen visiting his work mount up. With Jay, though, he’s carved a safe space. “There’s no lies between us,” Colm suggests during one of their clandestine hookups.

Vaughan-Lawlor as Colm

Vaughan-Lawlor as Colm

Like our protagonist, cinematographer Adam Scarth’s image is wary. Often his camera hangs back, framing Colm’s unease from the vantage of the kitchen window as he paces his suburban garden or observes the character at distance as he scurries between shipping containers from far-off countries he’s never contemplated visiting. The film is most vivid during Colm’s nighttime wanderings. At one point, staggering half-cut along the docklands, he could be walking in the industrial landscape of Red Desert. When he walks drunkenly into the sea at low-tide, he sinks to his knees, devastated that the water is too shallow to drown in.

Confrontations that might have generated high drama in other films are either subverted or consigned to off-screen. Rialto is a film too quiet and contained to accommodate these potentially destabilising melodramatic moments. Burns realises that an elliptical cut can be just as powerful as a fistfight or shouting match, and an ambiguous final shot more satisfying than a pat conclusion.

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