In the drama, Mammal, Margaret, a divorced woman living alone in Dublin, learns that her teenage son has been found dead. The twist is that she abandoned her husband, Matt, and the child many years before, when her son was just a baby. Irish writer/director, Rebecca Daly, explains to us what drew her to explore this dark, intriguing subject in Mammal, which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. “I started this film with the idea of exploring an alternative kind of mother, the one who leaves, and the one who doesn’t know how to mother,” the director says. “It troubles me that women are more harshly judged than men in relation to how they parent or don’t parent their children. This is complex and tied up in a view of the mother as more essential to a child’s development, but the result is that her identity is automatically more subsumed by becoming a parent than is the case for men. I wanted to see what the audience could feel about this woman who chose to leave her child, not for any great ambition, but just because she couldn’t, or didn’t know how to, live the life of mother and wife.”
Rebecca Daly studied theatre directing and acting, and then went on to study film. Her first short, Joy Riders (2006), won The Irish Film Award for Best Short and several international awards. Her first feature, The Other Side Of Sleep (2011), premiered in The Directors’ Fortnight at The Cannes Film Festival. She was selected to participate in the first Berlinale Residency with Mammal, and is currently in development on her third feature project, Good Favour. Depth of performance, enigmatic characters, and a powerful visual sensibility are prime features of Daly’s work.
In Mammal, Margaret encounters Joe, a homeless youth, who she finds injured late one night. She offers the boy a room in her house, and their complex, unsettling relationship starts to become a strange mutual reliance. This is threatened by ex-husband, Matt’s grief and Joe’s involvement with a gang of violent youths. “Margaret’s choice to leave underpins her reaction to her son’s death and her attempt to mother Joe,” says Daly. “If she felt that she had the right to grieve her own son, it’s unlikely that she would seek out a substitute. But while this is still an element of the film, what emerged finally is a complicated love story: the story of a woman who tries to love her son too late, and the complex relationship that she forms with a surrogate.”
Margaret is played with astonishing courage and generosity by acclaimed Australian actress, Rachel Griffiths. Many scenes in Mammal are tight and close on her, and she allows her body and uncertain emotions to be fully accessed by the camera. She is the “mammal” of the title, the human animal, built to protect and nurture, yet in Margaret’s case, these instincts have been deeply displaced. The effect is to throw everything out of balance, the bonding of mother and child incomplete, resulting in a compulsive attachment to the wounded boy. The teenager Joe is played by 22-year-old Dublin actor, Barry Keoghan, in an edgy and unselfconscious performance that embraces violence and vulnerability in equal measure.
“I started with the emotional theme,” says Rebecca Daly. “It started with this character of a woman who hadn’t raised her child, and it all went from there. Margaret is existing rather than living, until Joe appears, and then there’s this hidden wound that gets pushed to the forefront. But what happens between Margaret and Joe is essentially soothing, and it helps both of them. We rehearsed for a week-and-a-half, but it was more about talking and getting to know each other. I cast Rachel because she doesn’t normally play this sort of character. She’s such a great actress, and you know that she could play anything, but there’s an interesting tension between Rachel being a very gregarious, extroverted, warm person, while Margaret is so disconnected and held in. But then she gives Margaret this girlishness, and at other times, you really see the age gap between her and Joe.”
It’s a challenge to pit a young actor against Griffiths’ talent and experience, but Keoghan holds his own. “I met him in a place called The Factory, which is an actor training programme, four years ago,” Daly recalls. “He did this scene where he’s playing a 50-year -old man, and he made it make sense even though it’s so incongruous. He has a special talent.” That talent has led to a quick succession of gritty roles: Between The Canals, Stay, Norfolk, and Traders. “Rachel had this idea that our characters wouldn’t get too familiar because it may take away something from their dynamic on screen,” Keoghan tells us. “At the same time, Rachel was quite motherly and protective, and I think she’s like that anyway, and that helped me be more childlike. If someone is looking after you like that, you can give in to it, and it let me play it as more childlike and vulnerable. On the other side of it, when Joe is playing up with his mates, he comes from a similar place where I come from, and the lads who played my friends, they’re not actors, they’re the real deal. They don’t live far from me, and they’re like my own friends, so we clicked easily. When we were together, I’d be a bit of a lad, so I drew on that.”
There is a scary, unpredictable edge to Keoghan’s performance that Daly was pleased with. “That was really what we wanted,” she says. “Both the characters have these conflicting sides to them, and the tension point between those things within each of them is the danger point for the other character. Their secret world becomes fraught for both of them. Obviously, Joe brings threat and dangers to Margaret’s life, and she does the same to him.”
All directors find the premiere screening an emotional experience, and Rebecca Daly was no exception at Sundance. “It was nerve-racking,” she smiles. “I was so aware of the room in the screening. But I was really happy that Rachel and Barry were happy, because we went through this big process together, and you want everyone to feel that it was worthwhile at the end.”
Mammal will be released later this year.