The parallels between these two DVD releases extend a little beyond the tenuous link of Irish blood and a folksy sensibility. Both films present their subjects in intimate acoustic mode – The Swell Season (aka ‘Once’ couple Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová) in a historic church and Cara Dillon in an old converted hospital on the shores of Lough Foyle in Co. Donegal – and both are based on a familiar format. Following in the wake of Patty Griffin’s emotional tour de force, Hansard and Irglová pay a visit to the Artists Den in Seattle, while Dillon succeeds in recreating the formula of BBC4′s ‘The Transatlantic Sessions’ with her idyllic surroundings and liberal scattering of instruments and musicians around a beautifully decorated room.
The Good Shepherd Center Chapel that houses the Artists Den was built in 1906 as a shelter for orphaned or troublesome young girls. With her sweetly ethereal voice, grown stronger since the filming of ‘Once’, and pronounced but delicate piano playing, Irglová is perhaps more sophisticated than the previous occupants and her love for the music and for her man practically jumps off the screen. Hansard himself is typically excellent whether rattling off old Frames classics or duetting soulfully with Markéta, and his smiling-eyed between-song banter is priceless.
The chemistry between the two lovers makes for heartening viewing. And yet if there is a gripe it’s that, with a few songs excepted, the camera predominantly lingers on Hansard, even during the duets, sometimes leaving Irglová’s accompaniment as a disembodied spectral voice. But when the Czech takes the lead on ‘If You Want Me’, any rumblings of injustice are instantly stifled as she freezes the room with the same enchanting wonder that made her character in ‘Once’ so likeable.
In comparison to the relatively ad hoc approach of the Swell Season gig, a great deal of care and passion has clearly been laboured on The Redcastle Sessions, and as a result the finished product, filmed over four days, actually rises above the limitations of the TV blueprint. And while a lot of the credit for this lies at the feet of Dillon and her band, who give equally impassioned performances throughout, equal plaudits must go to BAFTA-winning director Robin Bextor (Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s dad), whose direction, framing and subtle use of beautiful crane shots all enhance the effect of the music.
The songs are largely drawn from Dillon’s three studio releases, with a couple of previously unreleased originals, and are interspersed with short interludes where the singer talks about her upbringing and the inspirations that have shaped her as both person and musician. The DVD extras include a live ‘session’ recorded in a bar in her hometown of Dungiven, perfectly drawing together the twin themes of music and heritage.
With inspiring cinematography and immaculate sound recordings providing a third commonality between them, it’s fair to say that, all in all, these two DVDs are a rare treat indeed.
[The Artists Den; import / Proper Films; July 26, 2008]