Director: Kirsten Sheridan
Starring: Jack Reynor, Seana Kerslake, Shane Curry, Johnny Ward and Ciaran McCabe
Out now on DVD
“WE don’t belong here,” muses Denise in Kirsten Sheridan’s shadowy thriller Dollhouse, in which a group of drunken, drug-fuelled teenagers are the house guests from Hell and throw the mother of all destructive parties.
If the thought of wine stains on the carpet makes you neurotic with anxiety, this film might offer some sort of catharsis.
Denise is played by Kate Brennan, one among a cast of newcomers who give exceptional performances. These include Seana Kerslake, Shane Curry, Johnny Ward and Ciaran McCabe, who has an expressive gap-toothed smile which somehow imparts vulnerability and threat by turns.
The stand-out cast member, though, is Jack Reynor, who was unknown at the time of production but has since won plaudits galore playing the ill-fated anti-hero in Lenny Abrahamson’s What Richard Did.
He’s equally impressive here and on current form is sure to follow Colin Farrell, Cillian Murphy and Michael Fassbender onto the list of what the Internet Movie Database terms ‘Hot Irish Actors’.
Last year Dollhouse had a sadly limited distribution in cinemas but is now released on DVD. Extras include a “making-of” feature, which is revealing, because while watching the movie it’s likely to stir viewers to wonder how the filmmaker ever got away with it.
Kirsten Sheridan must have met with many sceptical receptions and some raised, quizzical eyebrows, when explaining to financiers that she needed to film the wrecking of an exquisite property and its fine furnishings. It’s all the more surprising when you learn that property was the Dalkey home of Sheridan’s father, renowned filmmaker Jim Sheridan. Sheridan’s powers of persuasion worked.
Dollhouse follows events over a night of wilful devastation as the film’s hedonistic characters lay intoxicated waste to an empty modernist palace, situated in Dublin’s elitist suburb of Dalkey.
The opening shows five teenagers entering the house, all hushed whispers and stifled giggles, and initially it appears they’ve all strayed off the local rough-end housing estate, working-class scallies driven by curiosity and looking for random kicks.
But in a narrative that’s daringly minimalist and mostly free of plotting devices, an early twist reveals that one of the gang (Jeanie, played by Kerslake) is actually in her own family home, having deceptively invited strangers in to ruin the place. Her subterfuge becomes the key dramatic question. Is she a poor-little rich girl slumming it for the evening? Or a rich-bitch showing contempt for daddy’s wealth? Or is some deeper trauma behind her eccentric behaviour?
Whatever her motives, Jeanie’s revelation creates shock among her fellow revellers and what seemed like class solidarity gives way to class division, as the others feel themselves the dupes of some elaborate ruse.
Tensions tighten when Reynor appears as a neighbour complaining about the noise and it’s obvious he and Jeanie have some hinted emotional history. “Who the f**k are you?” the tough kids demand. “Who the f**k is asking?” the well-heeled boy next door retorts.
The narrative switches between scintillating montages of frighteningly authentic vandalism and quieter sequences when the kids’ energetic bravado subsides.
“You look like the kinda guy who’d be afraid of the dark,” one boy is teased. There’s a sustained sense of edginess and the feeling that capricious violence is always near at hand. Moods swing and alliances shift: “You can’t fool me, baby girl,” Denise softly smiles at that mysterious Jeanie, in a rare moment of shared instinctive sisterhood.
At times it can seem like a mere method acting exercise but the improvised performances are always effective. Each actor draws on genuine experience to give their character individual credibility.
What Sheridan is trying to portray is subject for speculation — perhaps the resentment of the disenfranchised, perhaps the over-indulged disregard of the wealthy.
Sheridan’s first feature, an adaptation of Enda Walsh’s Disco Pigs (2001), depicted the ever-present undertow of menace beneath wanton hedonism and so-called fun. Dollhouse evokes comparisons with Menhaj Huda’s Kidulthood (2006) and Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank (2009), in exposing youthful energies unbound by moral restraint.
But there’s also a symbolic-mythical colour to Sheridan’s film. In resolving the narrative it takes a huge chunk of dramatic licence and some viewers could feel unsatisfied or unconvinced. Yet Dollhouse is masterfully filmed and edited, with a thumpingly affective soundtrack, and is full of trippy realism and grotesque naturalism — a disorientating, nerve-wringing assault on the emotional senses.
Dollhouse is out now on DVD.