Scott Graham’s Iona references both the film’s setting and its central character. Iona and her teenage son wash up on the shores of Iona, running from a violent past in Glasgow. It’s instantly apparent that Iona is returning rather than arriving. For Iona, the island is a place filled with happy memories but also a place where she feels unwelcome and out of place. What follows are intense and mysterious interactions with different local residents. Iona is something of a ghost, seemingly and unintentionally haunting the Islanders for reasons unknown. The director’s second feature is as much about the protagonist’s son as it is about her, a loving single mother. An adolescent on the cusp of manhood, he is also deeply tormented about whatever it is they’ve left behind them on the mainland. Most of Iona is told through glances and inner thinking. There is as much glorious wind howling as there is dialogue. The film creates a wonderful sense of atmosphere and, oddly, temperature. The houses provide a comforting shelter from the cruel winds that rage outside, a metaphor for the shelter the island provides Iona from the rage and bad energy of her past life.
Iona is a film of small performances, suitable for the stage as well as the screen. Ruth Negga is Iona, performing with her eyes and using the stiffness in her entire body to project her feelings. She keeps Iona a closed book almost entirely throughout. She’s a charming and gentle central presence. Ben Gallagher makes his debut as Bull, the troubled teen. Likewise, Gallagher seems to understand that less is more. There are less than ten people in the entire cast, reflecting the film’s own intimacy. The rest of the cast also take a simplistic approach. This makes the film’s more emotionally charged scenes have even more power. Forgiveness is a crucial and prominent theme within Iona. Many characters seek forgiveness as well as the ability to forgive. Iona is an aesthetically and technically simplistic film but one with complicated and layered ideas and themes. As events come to a climax and tension leads to confrontation, Iona sadly loses a little bit of it’s momentum. It may not win you around initially but it’s a surprisingly enjoyable film to dwell on and ponder a little late down the line, in a quiet moment. I was most impressed with how Iona does justice to the natural world within which the story takes place. You can sense the temperatures drop and rise along with the drama at the heart of it all.
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