Saturday, July 23, 2011

Film review: KNUCKLE (MIFF 2011)

Directed and photographed by Ian Palmer, this raw Irish documentary looks at bare-knuckle boxing matches between Irish traveller families the Quinn McDonaghs, the Joyces and others, and the long-running feud that the fights are supposed to resolve.

Palmer spent 12 years filming the families and the brutal fights staged between their representatives, with much of the story told through the eyes of James Quinn McDonagh, his family's best fighter and a man who vast sums of money - upwards of £19,000 - are wagered upon (though the question of whether the fights are now driven more by money than family honour is never clearly explored by Palmer; one of several faults in the film).

As well as filming the fights themselves (usually held on country back-roads to avoid police intervention), Palmer tries to come to grips with the tragedy that first sparked the feud: a pub brawl gone wrong that resulted in two deaths and a manslaughter charge. Few of his interviewees, including James' hotheaded younger brother Michael, and Big Joe Joyce, 'the King of the Travellers', are particularly forthcoming about the issue, and the murky question of guilt and blame, and the pointless cycle of violence and trash-talking retaliation that the families are caught up in, drives the film's occasionally muddy narrative.

At 93 minutes, Knuckle feels overlong; a tighter pace and shorter running time would have done its compelling subject more justice; and the handheld camerawork is sometimes irritatingly shaky. Nonetheless, its view of Traveller culture is unique, and Palmer's footage of the fights themselves has undeniable power. As a study of the pointlessness of violence, however, it's more than a touch repetitive.

KNUCKLE (dir. Ian Palmer, Ireland, 2011, 93 mins)
Rating: Two and a half stars

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