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Man and woman in bed.
Normal People. BBC/Element Pictures/Hulu

New Dublin on screen – a place of freedom and choice

Dublin’s screen history reflects its real-life contradictions – at once the debased urban counterpart to the “real” Ireland of romantic rolling green hills and dramatic seascapes, and the wellspring of literary modernism, rock music and all-night party culture.

If one film best captured how Ireland’s capital imagined itself, it was Lenny Abrahamson’s debut feature, Adam & Paul. The story of two heroin addicts crossing the city in search of a fix. They were Godot and Ulysses propelled into the 21st century.

Dublin in Adam & Paul is a warren of threatening, enclosed spaces. In this, Abrahamson’s vision is little different to that of the many gangster films that have dominated depictions of the city, from The General (1998) to Cardboard Gangsters (2017). However, a recent cluster of productions – including Dating Amber (2020), Handsome Devil (2016) and Normal People (2020) – suggest that the capital’s image may be changing. These films provide an interesting commentary on the new relationship between the individual and the city.

A city mentality

In Dating Amber, the city is an escape, a place to be free from the stifling nature of the lead characters’ hometown and a place they can be themselves.

Set in 1995, David Freyne’s film follows Amber (Lola Pettigrew) and Eddie (Fionn O’Shea) in their last year at school in Kildare. Brought together by the taunting of their peers, the two admit to each other that they are gay and, in a bid to survive the rest of the year, enter into a concocted relationship that soon develops into a genuine friendship.

Bunking off school one day, they share an illicit booze-fuelled night in Dublin. Stumbling across a subterranean gay bar, the two have very separate but formative experiences. Amber meets Trinity student, Sarah (Lauryn Canny), with whom she develops a relationship. While in the distance, as if in a trance, Eddie dances a slow number clasped to the bosom of the club’s drag queen (Jonny Woo).

So out of sync is this scene with the film’s otherwise realist aesthetic that it could easily be a projection of Eddie’s imagination. It also uncannily echoes a similar sequence in Handsome Devil, also starring Fionn O’Shea and also set in Kildare in the past.

Here, O’Shea’s Ned finds himself attracted to his rugby player school roommate, Conor (Nicholas Galitzine). On a trip to Dublin city, Ned spots Conor entering a pub. The bouncer prevents him from following his friend, and Ned is forced to leave. As Ned travels back to school on the train, the film suddenly shifts back to the pub, now following Conor through the bar where he glimpses his English teacher, Dan Sherry (Andrew Scott), with another man. On their return to Kildare, student and teacher meet in what is presumably a later train. Awkward small talk ensues, with each apparently reluctant to admit why they were in a gay bar.

The point of both scenes, it seems to me, is to construct a space outside of the conservative reality (in both instances rural Ireland of the past) where gay desire can find free expression. That this is a kind of imaginary, utopian space is further signalled by the womb-like, cavernous interiors and hazy red lighting. To enter these places freely, the character must abandon their inhibitions from “old” Ireland, and as Amber advises Eddie, don a “city mentality”.

An open place

Having a city mentality is also what distinguishes Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) from Connell (Paul Mescal) in Normal People. In this highly regarded adaption of Sally Rooney’s zeitgeist novel of the same name, it is Marianne’s discomfort with the mores of Sligo school life that makes her feel alienated at school. But when she and Connell arrive in Dublin to study at Trinity College, the roles are reversed, and she is easily accepted by the metropolitan set, leaving Connell feeling awkward and excluded.

When I spoke to the series’ co-creators, Ed Guiney and Lenny Abrahamson, they explained that one of their aims in making Normal People was to project a new image of Dublin. What they achieved, I would suggest, was to refuse the older associations of the capital as a criminal city, insisting instead on its openness to new experiences.

That they did so through depictions of sexual encounters unlike anything ever witnessed on Irish screens (or any screen for that matter) may have distracted from Normal People’s intense engagement with the intellectual life of its central characters. In a way, this harks back to Dublin’s history as a literary city, but one that is now as likely to find its voice in a college room or the tossed sheets of a bed as much as in a smoky pub.

What is new, then, about these productions is their affirmation of personal freedoms: to live a gay lifestyle, to experiment with drugs, to be a writer. In this, these screen productions speak as intimately to a local audience as to the wider world with whom they share their Dublin, imagined or real.

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