There have been a number of queer films at the 2019 BFI London Film Festival which examine the role of shame in gay men’s lives. Tremors and Walking With Shadows both examine the effect of societal shame on gay men and Rialto spins this off in a new direction.
Colm is a 40-something year old man whose seemingly secure life is disrupted by internal and external forces. Dealing with the death of his father, Colm is faced with losing his job. His teenage son is distant, his daughter has her own life, he has lost his connection with his wife. Colm is meek and pathetic in that average way. Life throws punches and he just takes the hits.
One day, in a shopping centre bathroom, Colm cruises a young man and immediately starts apologising for not knowing what to do. He may be middle-aged, but he hasn’t yet had a life.
Tom Vaughan-Lawlor (recently, well, not seen but heard as Ebony Maw in Avengers: Endgame) makes Colm so depressingly realistic. He’s that guy in the office. He’s nice and unassuming and apologetic and often overlooked. When the camera lingers on his face while he is fucked by hustler Jay (Dunkirk’s Tom Glynn-Carney), you see Colm come alive, a mixture of pain and pleasure, realisation and release. Colm makes a series of painful, poor choices and it’s a testament to Vaughan-Lawlor’s skill that he doesn’t lose the audience on the way.
As Colm’s life spirals he’s drawn back to Jay. He starts developing misplaced feelings for the hustler (who is raising a child with his estranged girlfriend) and struggles to reconstruct his life which has been broken into pieces. Compounding secrets and lies with a destructive abuse of alcohol, Colm increasingly distances himself from his family.
Rialto is a study of what happens when a constructed life starts to crumble. Colm is a combination of stresses that threaten to crush him and his family. When a man has subsumed his own life out of shame and obligation, things have a habit of exploding.
Mark O’Halloran’s script, adapted from his own play, is littered with tiny character moments that draw you in. Colm’s inability to use his smart-phone reflects his inability to deal with his own life. When Colm finally tells a member of his own family what he’s been doing (in the most destructive way possible) it rips into you. Colm’s betrayal of his wife (Monica Dolan) is felt more in her excitement for a long-delayed date night than in the showdown that follows.
Visually, the film is suitably pedestrian in its outlook, only occasionally breaking out into more expansive views. The setting of Dublin’s docks gives the film room to breathe, against the small rooms and streets the rest of the movie inhabits.
Rialto’s strength is in its performers, given license to breath life into these well-crafted characters, and deliver a film that doesn’t rid itself of its theatrical origins but uses them to its advantage.
By Chad Armstrong