A three-part romantic drama set in contemporary west of Ireland. A beautiful blend of tense characters and majestic landscapes. Highly recommended.
Grace Harte (Kate Nic Chonaonaigh) is married to Leo Harte (Dara Devaney) and together they run his mother’s old (read “old-fashioned”) hotel. They don’t seem to have much else in common beyond their business routine, even as far as separate bedrooms, though they did in the past. Then three things occur which together form a catalyst for some dramatic changes: a young man opens a surfing school, the Hartes close the hotel for the winter season, and Leo’s mother dies. Grace is itching for change and the young man Danny (Eoin O’Dubhghaill) has sown some ideas. She sees the off-season as an ideal time to renovate, but Leo is quite the opposite. It rapidly becomes clear how far apart they’ve grown over the years, and at the same time, Grace becomes closer to Danny…
For a modern series on BBC television, the viewer will notice two somewhat unusual things straight away: Grace Harte is filmed in black and white, and virtually all the speech is in Irish. The monochrome (along with the huge old building in a rural setting) gives it an air of Hitchcock’s Rebecca. And as we get to know the characters, the plot develops into a Hitchcockian film noir: there isn’t any deep mystery, but tension because of complex feelings; and some of the stylised (not quite melodramatic) dialogue and action reinforce that. I’ll come back to the language in a bit.
The characters are very well drawn: I’ve never had lives like any of these people, but I can understand what they are all going through nonetheless, purely from the quality of writing and acting. Danny, Grace and Leo alike all seem somewhat two-dimensional at first, but gradually some depth emerges. Danny is more than just a young surfer, and the Hartes are more than just the Prudential ad couple (“We want to be together.”). The minor characters are well written too, not just the main three; their female friends are a little more clichéd, but I especially liked Leo’s friends Jack (Peadar Cox) and Tom (Eoin Geoghegan). And yes, Grace Harte’s story is surely tense: much of the story is about people working out their feelings and wires naturally getting crossed in the process. I’m sure we’ve all been there, but perhaps not to the extent that someone ends up going off a cliff.
Grace Harte is an age-old story; love-triangle dramas are as old as drama itself. It doesn’t claim to bring anything new to the plot as such, but applying it to contemporary west of Ireland feels very apt. It is the kind of remote and wild setting that many people settle in, happy to be stuck in traditional ways; while many others like to bring in modern touches, others just pass through or visit, and others can’t wait to leave… much like the myriad approaches to a middle-aged marriage. We don’t get to see much of the small town, but there are plenty of views of the coastal roads, nearby hills and the sea itself; but the views we do get, along with some elements of the dialogue, do give us a good feel for what the area is like.
In terms of rural dramas, Grace Harte could easily be compared to the Welsh Hidden and the Icelandic Trapped that I’ve covered in recent months. Dave Grennan’s cinematography is unlike both, though: where those shows focused on details (Hidden) and rugged danger (Trapped), Grace Harte relishes the wide open spaces, the winding roads and the freedom of the ocean. Grace herself loves her home and feels distant from rather than trapped by her husband. The show is beautifully made and the cinematography is used in such a way to supplement the story.
They don’t make too much of the location in the plot, either. According to the production company‘s website, Grace Harte is “A Wildfire Films Production for TG4. Funded by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland with the Television Licence Fee and produced with the support of incentives for the Irish Film Industry provided by the Government of Ireland.” So it could very easily have made a lot of the locale for publicity purposes (I’m thinking back to Grace and Goliath now). The only slight step in that direction was Danny mentioning the Wild Atlantic Way (a tourist route along the coast) a couple of times; but as he wanted to bring tourists to his surfing school, it’s not unreasonable at all.
The other aspect of that region, of course, is the Irish language. I think this is the first drama I’ve watched in Irish (though I saw plenty of educational shows in Irish as a kid), and I confess I wondered at first why Grace Harte was so, and what reason there was to set the story in the Gaeltacht. But again, like the cinematography, the story is a perfect fit to the setting, not least because the language provides a strong reason for nobody (even an independent-minded woman) wanting to leave the area. The sense of place is genuine, and the story worked so well because of the people, and their blend of modern and traditional lifestyles… which in turn fitted perfectly in the Irish-speaking coastal locale.
I do hope the BBC continue to bring in more shows of this caliber. Writer/creator Antoine Ó Flatharta, director Charlie McCarthy and producer Martha O’Neill are clearly a strong team, and worth watching out for. Grace Harte won them the CIRCOM Media Award last year for Best Drama, and if it is picked up by other broadcasters, I trust it will continue to do well.
Alix has been writing for Ready Steady Cut since November 2017. They cover a wide variety, including genre festivals, and especially appreciates wit and representation on screen.