While a small indie called Moonlight was being nominated for every award in sight, I went to see The Beauty Queen of Leenane. This very dark, very Irish comedy is the first play of Martin McDonagh, who has also made his mark in the film world by writing and directing In Bruges. That well-regarded 2008 film focuses on two Irish hitmen on the lam, hanging out in the medieval Belgian city. The brogues are thick and the mood is macabre. These characteristics also mark McDonagh plays like the astonishingly bloody The Lieutenant of Inishmore. The Beauty Queen of Leenane is a family story, but hardly one that’s warm and fuzzy. Unfolding in a rustic village outside Galway, it illustrates the mortal combat between a lovelorn middle-aged daughter and a mother who—though physically feeble—rules the roost.
It’s curious, really, that this play brought me back to my earlier viewing of Moonlight. The similarities are not obvious. The Beauty Queen is rural and Irish; Moonlight is urban and African-American. But both take place in small, tight social enclaves whose members feel themselves shut out of mainstream society. In Beauty Queen it’s poor Irish folk so economically stressed that they need to take lowly jobs among the despised English. In Moonlight it’s a section of Miami where black Americans scramble to get by, often resorting to jobs that border on (or slip over the border into) criminal behavior. That being said, the characters in Moonlight can’t be judged solely by their relationship to the rule of law. The film’s one sympathetic father figure, the man who provides a stabilizing influence in the life of a young outcast, is also – and unabashedly – a drug dealer. (He, played by the charismatic Mahershala Ali, is the one gently cradling young Chiron in the ocean after his first swimming lesson; it’s the visual image most often used to advertise Moonlight, and it captures the film’s blend of tenderness and terror.)
The Beauty Queen pinpoints the complex love/hate relationship between mother and (grown) daughter. For me possibly the most interesting strand in Moonlight is the relationship between an overstressed mother and her growing son. She (in the person of the magnificent Naomie Harris) is trying hard to raise and to love this young boy, whose shyness and gender confusion make him a natural target for bullies. At the same time, she’s dealing not only with poverty but also with her own drug habit, which causes her to lean over-heavily on a young man who needs her to be strong.
Both Maureen in The Beauty Queen and Chiron in Moonlight have secrets they won’t admit even to themselves. Chiron’s is that in a world where machismo is prized, he is attracted to men, not women. Director Barry Jenkins’ sensitive handling of this topic is part of the reason this film has gotten so much acclaim. He also does beautiful things with a true ensemble cast, one that includes three young actors playing Chiron in boyhood, adolescence, and young manhood.
But there’s one unfortunate way that the film resembles the play I saw at the Mark Taper Forum. This was a true Irish production from Dublin’s Nomad theatre ensemble, and the accents of the all-Irish cast were at times too opaque to be understood. And Moonlight left me equally flummoxed. I’ve heard the film praised by a critic who mentioned that he’d seen it three times. Frankly, it may take three tries to understand some key plot points that the actors’ style of enunciation – however authentic – kept me from understanding. How frustrating to be shut out by language!