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Glassland review: Glass half empty as movie falls flat

There has been a growing trend for leading Hollywood actresses to throw glamour to the wind and slum it as "ugly" characters in gritty indie flicks. Cynics may say the likes of Nicole Kidman - who donned a prosthetic nose to play Virginia Woolf in The Hours, Charlize Theron - who gained weight and shaved her eyebrows for the role of serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster or Jennifer Aniston - who played a lank-haired car crash survivor in Cake - had one eye on the work and the other on awards season, but they gave committed performances.

To this list, we can now add The Sixth Sense and Little Miss Sunshine's Toni Collette, who bypasses the hair, make-up and wardrobe departments to portray a broken-down, alcoholic mother in Dublin-set drama Glassland.

The Australian Oscar nominee's co-stars are fellow refugees from the land of blockbusters, with Jack Reynor taking time out between Transformers sequels and Will Poulter leaving behind the Chronicles of Narnia and Maze Runner franchises to appear in writer-director Gerard Barrett's second feature.

Listowel-born Barrett's 2013 debut was Pilgrim Hill, a grim account of a cattle farmer living alone with his invalided father in rural Ireland. Glassland retains that picture's bleakness and desolation, but transposes it to the housing estates of Dublin, where beleaguered twenty-something John (Reynor) is trying to earn an honest living as a taxi driver. John's best efforts are compromised both by a general lack of work and his heavy-drinking mother, Jean (Collette), who faces the prospect of dying from her condition following a binge. With almost £6,000 to come up with to pay for a four-week stint in rehab for his mum ("And that's mates' rates," says Jean's AA sponsor, played by Northern Ireland's own Michael Smiley), John - perhaps inevitably - turns to crime.

But despite Glassland skirting around the murky underworld of prostitution, Barrett's film proves a curiously neutered experience.

This is a story set in a world of sex and violence where we see no sex or violence, and while Barrett's restraint is admirable up to a point, it remains a somewhat lurid exercise in "misery porn".

Barrett is obsessed with the dreary details of impoverished living, such as John diluting dregs of milk with water for his cornflakes or the Christmas tree-shaped air freshener that hangs forlornly in his cab, presumably many months after December 25.

Yet the most disturbing aspect of Glassland is the suggestion of incestuous feelings between John and Jean. It's there in their slightly-too-lingering glances at each other, and notably in a scene where mother and son get drunk together and dance to Soft Cell's Tainted Love. It feels at several points as though the movie could be heading in a more interesting, albeit spectacularly creepy, direction, but Barrett never follows through.

As for the cast, Reynor is a bit of a blank presence, but Poulter nicely essays the ignorance and propensity for violence of what they call in Dublin "knackers".

Collette manages the Irish accent well, and her hard-boozing Jean is a shrieking, weeping terror. Sadly, we don't see much of another side to any of these people, some spark of charisma or personality that might make us root for them more. Thank heaven, then, for the ubiquitous Smiley, whose bearded, jumper-wearing social worker at least speaks in sentences.

Two stars

Belfast Telegraph