A troubled middle-aged family man finds solace in a young gay hustler

rialto (1)

Source: ASAC/ La Biennale di Venezia


Dir: Peter Mackie Burns. Ireland/UK. 2019. 90mins

Is Rialto’s quietly ordinary protagonist just going through a rough patch — or are there signs that something far more troubling is beginning to consume him? Director Peter Mackie Burns (Daphne) fashions a decidedly low-key character study that emphasises this middle-aged family man’s unremarkable, but by no means unimportant, life, investigating the little cracks in his psyche that are leaving him unsteady — and seeking solace in a teen boy he starts paying for sex. Tom Vaughan-Lawlor pulls off the tricky task of playing someone who normally passes by unnoticed, delivering an understated turn that forces viewer to acquiesce to its restrained rhythms.

The juxtaposition between music and image also gives the movie an unsettling edge

Screening in Venice’s Horizons section, Rialto is so small-scale that it will need strong reviews to help build support. Adventurous buyers will emphasise with the film’s gentle, wise observations about emotional tumult — and fans of writer Mark O’Halloran (who wrote the script based on his play Trade) might also be courted.

Living in Dublin with his wife Claire (Monica Dolan) and two kids, Colm (Vaughan-Lawlor) is a dockworker struggling after the recent death of his complicated father. His woes are compounded by the fact that he’s about to be made redundant, but this ineffectual, heavy-drinking man seems to be tormented by more than these apparent stressors. 

Almost on a whim, he engages in a quickie bathroom hook-up with 19-year-old Jay (Tom Glynn-Carney), a prostitute who blackmails him soon after in order to get more money. Colm complies, but they start to develop an unlikely rapport, continuing to see each other for trysts. 

That plot description might make Rialto sound like a gay love story — or, at the very least, a story of a closeted man who finally embraces his sexuality. But that would be an inaccurate encapsulation of what it’s like to experience this consciously tiny mini-drama, in which Colm finds himself at a crossroads and can’t quite summon the motivation to pick a path forward. Fearful that he’s as terrible a father as his old man, unmoored after losing the job he’s held since he was a teen, and feeling increasingly distanced from his loving wife, Colm can’t put a name to his pain, but he’s adrift, perhaps even suicidal.

Burns positions Colm’s affair as being about something more than just sex. Neither man mentions their sexuality — Colm says he’s never done anything like this, and Jay has a girlfriend and a baby, although he makes money hustling — and when Jay asks Colm why he’s drawn to him, the older man simply replies that they have fewer lies between them than he does with anyone else. Rialto’s delicate ambiguity concerning this relationship is touching, underlining how the broken Colm seems to be desperately seeking wholeness.

Vaughan-Lawlor provides Rialto with an everyman modesty, but the character’s minute emotional fluctuations repeatedly suggest that his thin veneer of normalcy is crumbling. On that note, composer Valentin Hadjadj’s grandiose strings score sometimes overwhelms Rialto’s unassuming drama, hinting at Colm’s crippling inner trauma that we otherwise rarely observe. But that juxtaposition between music and image also gives the movie an unsettling edge. The question asked at the start of this review is left unresolved by Rialto’s end, but Vaughan-Lawlor’s keenly felt performance will leave audiences hoping that Colm can finally find equilibrium — even if it happens long after the movie is over.

Production companies: Cowtown Pictures, The Bureau 

International sales: The Bureau Sales, sales@lebureaufilms.com 

Producers: Alan Maher, John Wallace, Tristan Goligher, Valentina Brazzini

Screenplay: Mark O’Halloran, based upon the stage play Trade by Mark O’Halloran

Production design: Sarah Finlay 

Editing: Tim Fulford 

Cinematography: Adam Scarth 

Music: Valentin Hadjadj 

Main cast: Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, Tom Glynn-Carney, Monica Dolan, Michael Smiley