One of the aims of my reviews is to support independent cinema and shine a light on stories told, yet overlooked. After all, Cinema is at its best when it’s telling a powerful story. Through the power of Twitter, myself and Indie Director Robbie Walsh got talking and Robbie graciously sent me a screener of his latest film ‘The Letters’. Robbie’s film is a drama, solely focused on the cervical check cancer scandal in Ireland. It’s a heart-breaking topic that I did not know existed until now.
The Letters gets its title from the diagnosis letters some Irish women received informing them of their diagnosis and serves to aid the audience understanding of such a sensitive topic. Walsh has written his script cantering around 3 women and their families. Although based on real life, this is very much a fictional film with fictional characters and companies, however you wouldn’t think this while watching, as the trio of scenarios are incredibly specific and relatable.
The first person we meet is Sam, a broke Mom with 4 school age daughters. When we first meet Sam, she is just about coping with daily life. Living in a small suburban house, she shares a bed with her daughters, walking the fine line of keeping them fed and healthy, while keeping several loan shark debt collectors at bay. It’s clear something’s not right with Sam. She looks exhausted but just keeps going for the sake of her daughters.
We then meet Cliona, at first, it’s not overly clear who Cliona is. We later find out that she works in a government office and is very mildly Autistic. She likes everything in straight lines and has a slight social awkwardness.
The last of the trio to be introduced is Mary. We also meet her Mother Bridgette. In their introduction Walsh allows a tiny amount of humour to enter the film when we see Mary and Bridgette running around their house acting out a game. Mary is the middle-aged daughter to Bridgette, an elderly lady who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. Bridgette’s loss of cognitive function means that during her less coherent times she sees nuns. It is clear that trauma which Bridgette suffered whilst under the care of nuns is now coming to the fore as her mind succumbs to the disease. The toll on Mary is clear and while she starts the film happy and playful, that tone does not last long.
Once the women are introduced, Walsh moves the film onto ‘Day 2’. I found this to be a little confusing as I do not recall seeing ‘Day 1’ and later in the film the days are not focused on. Walsh uses this day to reinforce the toll of the daily grind, the repetitive activities of the women. Sam is clearly showing signs of illness, wrestling with her daughters’ need for money to pay for dance lessons and sisterly bickering, whilst the loan sharks take what she has. Cliona putting a brave face on, while clearly feeling ill. We get to see more of Mary and Bridgette’s exhausting relationship on this day as well.
As Walsh progresses the trio’s story, we get to find more about Cliona story and it’s difficult to stomach. A socially awkward and obviously ill Cliona is forced into a meeting with a Government Minister (played by Walsh) who is best described as a misogynistic sod! Walsh does not hold back in this role. His character’s views on women are narrow minded, and the ways he finds to undermine Cliona are just inhumane, it’s a scene that would make any rational person’s blood boil. However hard it is to watch, this shock and awe approach is Walsh getting his point across on what the victims had to endure.
Walsh has done his research on the scandal, and it shows. Midway through the film, Walsh introduces the letters, but just before this he provides some comments from some of the real women affected. These are shown on screen alongside the women’s voices. It’s a real poignant moment and lands the reason why this film exists – to give the victims a voice.
After this brief interlude, Walsh returns to the daily grind that the women are having to endure, pushing the narrative forward 6 months. By this time, the women are all seriously ill and preparing for the inevitable, in their own ways. In this, the final third of the film Walsh does not let up. Deepening the emotional gravitas of the women’s plight. He goes full in, no sugar coating the Woman’s turmoil and ultimate fate. The women are depicted suffering unimaginable pain and angst. It’s heart breaking to watch and sucker punches you emotionally.
Carroll goes from being somewhat of an unclear character, through to being totally understood. The power of Carroll’s performance comes not from her lines, but from her body language. The physical uneasiness due to her characters autism, is what makes her performance so profound
Yeates has the most demanding job to do in The Letters. Her scenes range from running around the house in a jovial mood and being quite physical restraining her Mom to dealing with her failing health. Walsh puts Yeates through an emotional ringer. Yates is superb at conveying such a wretched miserable existence.
Whilst Yeates may have the most demanding scenes, I feel that Murray’s are almost as grueling, not in a physical way, but in the mental sense. Sam is having to wrestle with her failing health and still stay alert enough to stand up to demanding people who let’s face it have zero care for her well-being. I found It striking how Murray was able to find the strength of mind to convey all these stresses in her performance. Altering her facial expressions as she gets weaker, in such a way that the audience understand exactly the emotions she is going through
Walsh’s stark narrative for this film is conveyed through excellent use of sound. Classical music is used for the score. Using Cavalleria Rusticana – Intermezzo sinfonico, (performed by Berliner Philharmoniker) to open the film and Suite bergamasque, Clair de Lune (Debussy) to end the film. Elsewhere in the film I am pleased Walsh does not fall for the independent film trope of sticking background music over everything; Walsh lets the ambiance of the scenes aid the film’s sense of bleakness. When Walsh does opt to use background sound it’s creatively implemented and is used to drive home a point, such as a ticking clock supplying the n of time running out.
Supporting Walsh with sound production is Paulie Dunn. Dunn has ensured that The Letters is presented with a clear and consistent sound. Voices are crisp and easy to hear, I was impressed that I had no need to play volume tennis.
Not only is Walsh the Writer and Director, he is also Cinematographer. As with most indie films the camera choices seem limited, but Walsh’s stark vison for this film benefits from this. If I have one criticism it’s a little over reliant on handheld roving shots, which comes across a little wearing on the eyes. The image quality also came across a little on the soft side.
A stylistic choice that Walsh has made is to grade the film in black and white, with only a couple of scenes in colour. I can see why he has done this, the lack of colour focuses the viewer on the reality of the story unfolding on screen. I also suspect that the choice of black and white is a personal one by Walsh, to pay tribute to the victims and survivors of the scandal. The colour scenes are minimal and almost washed out, they hint of a happiness of what could have been and highlight the women at peace in a better place. It’s a touching element to a film already full of emotion.
Watching The Letters, it’s easy to forget that this is a film shot on a budget. Due to budget constraints Walsh shot the 3 women’s stories independently and then edited them together to form the films narrative. This is expertly done, with Walsh opting to bring in title cards on screen to introduce key elements of the film.
When I first found out about The Letters, I had in my mind a film drama in the style of ITV’s Salisbury Poisonings. Something that dramatised the events of a scandal. How wrong I was.
Walsh’s motivation for The Letters is to show the harsh reality of the trauma and turmoil that the victims, survivors, and families had to go through, using his experience of interviewing the women and families affected. Although Walsh has built his film around the narrative of 3 victims, he takes pains to explain to the audience the full scale of scandal. By focusing on the 3 women, he exposes the self-centered nature of government to protect the system and the professionals, whilst sacrificing the women involved and blows wide open the human cost of the scandal.
Whilst watching the film it should be remembered that the scandal really did happen and is no doubt still affecting families and society today. This film is not an easy watch, as it tackles themes such as depression, suicide and death and has no happy ending. It leaves the viewer with a mix of emotions and thoughts that are not on the happy spectrum.
Walsh and his team should be recognised for creating a film that is able to perfectly articulate the horror of the inevitable fate of those affected.
Overall, I give The Letters a ‘Must Watch’ rating, but with the warning that viewer discretion is advised.
Find out more on the scandal in the review extras below.