Review by James Mahon
The Future Tense ( Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor, 2022) should not work cinematically. As a video essay format it seems more suited to a YouTube or Podcast platform in the tradition of Joe Rogan et al. Yet definitely unlike a Joe Rogan podcast, The Future Tense not only works, but thrives by being on the big screen. This is in large part down to the deeply personal nature of the film. The transparency and vulnerability of both Molloy and Lawlor is essential, as they use their own lives to reflect and meditate on the eclectic mix of nationalism, populism, family, mental illness, dual identity and ultimately Ireland itself.
The structure of the film is deliberately sparse in nature. Molloy and Lawlor sit in front of a mic and read out from their scripts. They alternate between one and another, and interspersed throughout is historical or family footage and the odd interjection by friends or family. As a couple the directors emigrated to London from Ireland in the 1980s, and their permanent return home, now with an adult daughter in tow, has been a catalyst for them to reflect on the change that has been effected upon them and their wider world in the last 30 odd years.
Initially Molloy and Lawlor were committed to the idea of hiring actors to play them. COVID however, slightly disrupted this plan. This is one of the few, the very few, benefits that COVID has provided us. By playing themselves, so to speak, The Future Tense has an authenticity that would have been lost if actors had spoken the words – no actor can match the emotional immediacy of the real thing. It is this that really defines the film, the use of incredibly personal and private history of both Molloy and Lawlor as a platform to engage with the broader thematic aspects of the film. This micro to macro approach is embodied by Lawlor’s description of the journey of his mother, and how not only she, but he and his family negotiated with her mental illness. Additionally, the couple’s arrival in England in the 80s is a means to explore the mass migration of Irish people at the time to England and the dislocation many of them felt. It is at its best though, when they mine these varied life experiences to reflect on how it has shaped their own family and that of their own daughter. Nonetheless, they never stoop to an artificial sentimentality or a deliberate provoking of emotion – they are merely telling their story.
The film though is not one tone in its entirety. Reconstructions, personal footage and historical clips are all used to animate the events that Molloy and Lawlor are articulating. There is a video of Lawlor’s mother that is striking in its directness – it can’t really be described but it has to be seen. Also there is a comedic dimension to the film. At times they can seem a bit clunky but they provide some light relief when needed, and Lawlor in particular is not afraid to call someone a fucker when they need to be. Similarly, the attempt to portray pre-recorded interviews as if they were live is somewhat forced, the artifice of it all being slightly to evident. Although, at times these little diversions have a unique magnetism, especially with author Kevin Barry speaking about his favourite place in Co. Sligo.
It is when Molloy and Lawlor deviate from their own lives to that of historical or political figures that the film is at its weakest. A large section is devoted to Rose Dugdale, an English woman who was a member of the IRA during the troubles. Although the couple are researching a film about her it feels a bit disconnected from the broader narrative. The film loses its intimacy and starts to feel more academic.
Ultimately though, despite some flaws, The Future Tense is profoundly nuanced and perceptive. It is underscored by its uninhibited approach toward its subjects and its heartfelt emotional centre.