I Could Read the Sky

UK/Ireland/France 1999

Reviewed by Charlotte O'Sullivan


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

An old Irish man lives out his days in the cottage where he was born. As his mind ranges over various topics, the memories become more troubled: his brothers and sisters leave Ireland for England and America; then he takes the boat to England, where he's offered various low-paid jobs. He remembers seeing his brother Joe in a factory and meeting up with him. Visiting his brother's flat a month later, he found it empty.

We move back and forth between the present and the past. The young man's father dies and he returns to Ireland. The man travels to England, only to be recalled to Ireland for his mother's funeral. Back in London once more, he undergoes a breakdown but meets Maggie, an Irish woman, in a pub. They get married but she dies suddenly. The man returns to his home in Ireland, where he lives alone. He realises he is ready for death.


I Could Read the Sky, as the title suggests, is about the past in relation to the present, a notoriously tricky country to capture on film. Director/screenwriter Nichola Bruce does her best to make us feel twice removed. She uses superimposition, brings photographs to life, causes carpets to morph into bare floors and generally allows images of the past and present to lap up against each other in waves. But initially at least these seem like attempts to distract us from the fact that her highly literary script - featuring an old man reminiscing about his life, a big part of which was spent in England, away from his native Ireland - would actually make for a better radio or stage play: a one-man show that any able actor (including the beautifully shaggy, strawberry-and-cream skinned Dermot Healy) could make riveting.

Furthermore, the picture painted of Ireland - as a big-skied land awash with drink, livestock, music and ear-catching chatter - is hardly original. Many of the phrases used by the hero are lovely (after his father's funeral, he comments, "I can see it - the absence of others, draining the world"). But they seem just that - phrases perfect for an English-speaking audience accustomed to Angela's Ashes' gloom. Even the fierce anti-English sentiments (the whole race, apparently, are cold and culture-free) seem formulaic.

It's when our nameless narrator is discussing a far less emotive topic - the collapse and recreation of his textual identity - that something more potent kicks in. He and his labouring friends make up names for their bosses. Our hero often assumes the title J. Brady, from a name tag he found in a coat; others call themselves "Lost, after Joe", or Michael Collins, "just for the crack". And as he's telling us this the images on screen - churning cement, bricks and mortar - gain an extraordinary momentum. These materials - so rarely looked at up close - are beautiful-ugly in their anonymity, just like him. And for the first time the camera's restlessness seems justified.

Our hero's life is not all work, but once we've gained this insight into his personality, the feel of his reminiscences changes. If this man can lie to his bosses, might he not be lying to us? The grim, half-registered stories come back to haunt us (brother Joe disappearing from his flat; the dead body of his mother's brother, left to rot for three months). And each time we catch a glimpse of the public places this man has been a part of, the liquid of private life trickles into view; the very bricks, or so it would seem, spilling their blood on behalf of the elusive men who laid them. While such unholy ejaculations have taken place before in novels (think of Peter Ackroyd's Hawksmoor), Bruce's contribution feels genuinely cinematic, alive.

Given I Could Read the Sky's slow, unconvincing start, the wonder is that when Dermot Healy's old man realises he's ready to die, we don't want to let go; and that the very music that seemed so much a part of the traditional Irish package brings us, as it rolls over the credits, almost to tears.


Nichola Bruce
Janine Marmot
Nichola Bruce
Based on a book by
Timothy O'Grady
Steve Pyke
Directors of Photography
Seamus Mcgarvey
Owen McPolin
Catherine Creed
Production Designer
Jane Bruce
Music/Music Producer
Iarla O'Lionáird
©Hot Property Sky Ltd.
Production Companies
The Arts Council of England/Bord Scannán na héireann - Irish Film
Board/Channel 4/The British Film Institute/ Real World Records presents in association with Gemini Films and Spider Pictures a Hot Property Film in association with Liquid Films
Supported by the National Lottery through the Arts Council of England
Produced with the assistance of Bord Scannán ha néireann - Irish Film Board
Executive Producers
Irish Film Board:
Rod Stoneman
Roger Shannon
Gemini Films:
Paulo Branco
Spider Pictures:
Ben Gibson
Nicholas O'Neill
Executives in Charge of Production
Irish Film Board:
Leslie Kelly
Angela Topping
Production Co-ordinators
Ciara McGowan
Emma Fowler
Production Managers
Christopher Collins
Melanie Gore-Grimes
England Location Manager
Casper Mill
Assistant Directors
Ben Gill
Diane Wood
Toby Hosking
England Script Supervisor
Rowena Ladbury
Casting Director
Maureen Hughes
Special Visual Effects
M2 Television
Art Directors
Jessica Coyle
Janna Craze
Costume Designer
Helen Kane
Ireland, Designer:
Louise Myler
England, Designer:
Karen Turner
England, Artist:
Jules Yorke Moore
Featured Musicians
Denis Cahill
Caroline Dale
Martin Hayes
Noel Hill
Tommy McManamon
James McNally
Sinéad O'Connor
Iarla O'Lionáird
Liam O'Maonlai
Rí Rá
Music Supervisors
Amanda Jones
Mike Large
Music Co-ordination
Real World Records
Jacquie Turner
"Singing Bird"
Sound Design
Joakim Sundström
Sound Recordists
Dan Birch
Cameron Hills
Additional Sound Recording
Maírin Ní Ríordáin
Rashad Omar
Dubbing Mixer
Mike Prestwood-Smith
ADR Mixer
Chris Phinikas
Jack Stew
Graeme Stoten
Tim Barker
Dermot Healy
the old man
Stephen Rea
Brendan Coyle
Maria Doyle Kennedy
Jake Williams
young boy
Roy Larkin
young Joe
Lisa O'Reilly
Kate Creevy
Uncle Rosco
Rachael Pilkington
young Eileen
Aidan O'Toole
Colm O'Maonlai
Jimmy McGreevy
Pat McGrath
Farmer Casey
Liam O'Maonlai
Noel O'Donovan
Francis Burke
Geraldine Fitzgerald
Iarla O'Lionáird
singer at wedding
Bobby Casey
Dermot Grogan
Noel Hill
Jim Philbin
musicians at wedding
Mick Lally
Paddy Breathnach
Frank Murray
Gerry O'Boyle
Pat McCabe
Danny Morrison
Timothy O'Grady
Steve Pyke
Joanne Burton
Kerry Burton
Albert Griffin
Eamonn Atkinson
Emma Lowe
Claire Walsh
Sinead Murphy
Richard Holbrood
Donnchadha O'Fátharta
Peadar O'Fátharta
Jack Kelly
Patrick Tucker
Domnik Band
Denis Deasy
Frank Ward
Steve McCabe
Phil Fitzpatrick
Martin Ellis
Joe Duffy
Liz Finch
Orla McElroy
Saran McElroy
Maggie Chambers
Maria Ruiz
Beatriz O'Grady
Tristram Wymark
Artificial Eye Film Company
tbc feet
tbc minutes
Dolby SR
In Colour
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011