Rialto (2020) review: an emotional character-driven piece that’s both punishing and absorbing

Dublin drama hits hard with its complexities of life, love and loss

Director Peter Mackie BurnsRialto takes the stage play Trade by Mark O’ Halloran (who writes the screenplay here too) and reworks it into a feature, with equally insightful and emotive results. The title translates in english as ‘exchange’, and in this case that definition takes on multiple meanings.

Rialto picks up with 46-year-old dockyard worker Colm (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), who is married with kids and living comfortably but he is secretly gay, and the shame he feels, not to mention the increasingly changing direction of his life, all begin to consume him. However, in teenage sex worker Jay (Tom Glynn Carney) he finds some kind of connection but with potentially further devastating consequences.

Colm’s self-destructive decisions, spiralling addictions to alcohol, desperate clinging to his paid sex with Jay, increasing frictions at home and tough upbringing, all amount to a compelling but shattering, and sometimes harrowing, portrait of a troubled soul. As he pushes away the support of his wife Claire (Monica Dolan), and constantly comes at loggerheads with his indifferent son Shane (Scott Graham), the story becomes one of a man determined not to become his father and to be a good man, but seemingly doomed to repeat some of his own family history.

O’Halloran really captures a sense of self-loathing and the true suffering that often comes with living, and via some intimate direction by Burns, Rialto is an unpredictable and hard-hitting viewing. What initially seems like a drama stemming from a first intense and fearful meeting in a public toilet, expands into a story of people, and how they struggle to juggle their identity, family and feelings, be they ones of love or loss. The passing of Colm’s father throwing up some particularly difficult themes of childhood, grief and fatherhood.

Jay is in many ways a centre to the film, as the young man initially appears as a kind of hustler but is slowly unwrapped as a man just trying to do his best who has found himself on whatever path he can to get there. The scenes between Jay and Colm slowly build, as Colm begins to seek out real love, as he seemingly craves companionship, but in truth hopes for the healing of his wounds.

However, there is a poignant edge to these scenes, be it in a secretive B&B, the home setting or in an empty car park, and the acting lingers in its raw power. Vaughan-Lawlor’s eyes tell a revealing story of a man being eaten alive by his pain, while Carney exudes exterior strength as a character that must hide away himself to be able to get what money he needs but we see vital insights into his life and background. And there is some fantastic support from Dolan as Colm’s supportive and worry-stricken wife, who only sees her husband slipping away but doesn’t know why.

Burns’ film is shot wonderfully, capturing some of the harshness, as well as the beauty, of the Irish landscapes (particularly the towering dockyard structures) and of Sarah Finlay’s realistic production design, always making particularly strong use of Adam Scarth’s cinematography. And while Valentin Hadjadj’s score is sadly never allowed to equally flourish, it still effectively backs certain scenes.

Rialto is a tough watch at times and its whirlpool of circumstances and emotions does keep you on edge with their unpredictability (a sea shore sequence set-up leaves you grasping your seat in dread), as you will it all to come right but know that life does not work like that. Yet there is longstanding power to be found and felt in the film’s honest explorations of its important and complex subjects.

A drama that is well paced, well acted, well explored and well worth your time.

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