Review: ‘The Silver Branch’

Hot Docs 2018

4 mins read

The Silver Branch
Ireland, 75 Minutes
Dir. Katrina Costello.
Programme: International Spectrum (International Premiere)


Patrick McCormack is an Irish farmer and poet who lives in an area in the west of Ireland called the Burren (from the Irish word “boíreann” meaning “rocky place”), a famously picturesque area of lunar-like limestone landscapes, which includes a natural park that has Iron Age and pre-historic sites.

If McCormack were a rapper, you’d say he had great flow: The rhythm of his sentences matches the editing of Katrina Costello’s lush natural images, while dreamy music is supply interwoven. The film, The Silver Branch, consists, mainly, of his voice-over monologue accompanied by nature images. His subject is the relationship between human and the natural, in which he discusses talking to the rocks, woods and streams and “letting nature work on you.”

The Silver Branch of the title refers to a symbol from Irish mythology associated with the entrance to the Other World, the paradise of the pre-Christian gods of Ireland, which, as the Irish poet Paul Muldoon says, is often depicted as lying behind the “world scrim” of sensory experience. While this tapestry of words, music and images initially has the heady effect of a good meditation video, a little Celtic pantheism goes a long way. McCormack grows wearying in his constant expression of reverence and wonder: Everything from a dying cow to a soaring falcon seems placed on earth to teach him a lesson about the harmonious symphony of existence.

Does it break the spell to mention that falcons sometimes eat farmer’s chickens? Or that farmers sometimes eat cows? Or, to suggest that the poet romanticism of tradition is often fanciful? A moment after Patrick tells us farmers of the old generation, like his wonderfully cute neighbour, John Joe Conway, lived free from the grasp of institutions, the camera pans over a crucifix and framed illustration of Jesus on the man’s wall. Say what?

Once The Silver Branch has established McCormack’s spiritual bona fides around the 20-minute mark, we get around to its core subject, Throughout most of the ‘90s, McCormack was part of the Burren Action Group, local conservationists who, through a series of court actions, managed to stop the building of a interpretative centre in the park which was designed to bring in hundreds of thousands of tourists.

McCormack, a shy man who was an amateur boxer in his youth, says he summoned his “inner warrior” (of course) to rise to the occasion. The issue was fiercely divisive; McCormack was called an elitist and a “green fascist” for his efforts, though eventually, his side won the day against the ugliness of commercialism.

To its credit, the film acknowledges there’s sometimes a trade-off between conservation and short-term economic needs: Four of McCormack’s children have emigrated to the United States, unable to sustain a living in their parents’ community. Disappointingly, director Costello left out a bit of frivolity that would have helped make McCormack seem a little more down-to-earth: He lives on an organic farm in the house where the sitcom, Father Ted (1995-1998) was shot. For a price, visitors can drop in for a tour, tea and scones, and perhaps, enjoy a taste of his poetic flow.

The Silver Branch screens:
-Tues, May 1 at 5:30 PM at TIFF Lightbox
-Thurs, May 3 at 1:00 PM at TIFF Lightbox
-Sun, May 6 at 5:30 PM at Scotiabank



Liam Lacey is a freelance writer for and POV, Canada’s premiere magazine about documentaries and independent films.

Previously, he was a film critic for The Globe and Mail newspaper from 1995 to 2015. He has also contributed to such publications as Variety, Cinema Scope, Screen, and Entertainment Weekly, as well as broadcast outlets CBC and National Public Radio.

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