From bangers to cachet: in just three years Paul Mescal has gone from making his screen debut in a TV ad for Denny Irish sausages to being cast as the lead in Ridley Scott’s long-awaited sequel to Gladiator. Along the way, he has trousered a Bafta for his role in the mini-series of Sally Rooney’s global best-seller Normal People and picked up an Oscar nomination for playing a single dad in heartbreaking holiday drama Aftersun. Cannily, he has also secured his long-term career prospects by signing up for Merrily We Roll Along, an ambitious film version of Stephen Sondheim’s coming-of-age musical that will film every few years until a forecasted 2039 release. The lad from County Kildare is living the dream: beloved by fans, feted by critics and irresistible to casting directors.
It helps that Mescal is charismatic, down-to-earth and keen to pitch in on interesting projects (he had a small but impactful supporting role in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter, while Aftersun was the debut feature film from writer-director Charlotte Wells). But as his career skyrockets, the 27-year-old would do well to remember what happened to Colin Farrell, another soulful young Irishman who suddenly found himself in high demand. Farrell promptly relocated to LA, perfected an indeterminate American accent in a succession of high-profile Hollywood movies and ultimately experienced artistic and commercial burnout out in the full glare of the spotlight. (Thankfully, it all worked out OK for Farrell in the end.)
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That risk of following your dream far from home only to have it all come crashing down has an interesting echo in Mescal’s latest film, the intense family drama God’s Creatures. It is set in a close-knit Irish fishing community where oysters – those enduring symbols of wealth and decadence – are farmed and harvested by local low-paid workers. Mescal plays Brian O’Hara, a wayward son who, after years of clashing with his fisherman father, upped sticks to start a bold new life in Australia, breaking contact with his family in the process. Now Brian is unexpectedly back, seemingly chastened and certainly unwilling to talk about what happened Down Under in anything other than the most general terms (his only Oz keepsake is an occasional tendency to say “mate”).
Brian’s homecoming overlaps with the funeral of one of his oldest pals, which could either be read as a fortuitous coincidence or a bad omen. But one person who is clearly delighted to see him is mum Aileen (Emily Watson). (His dad, played by Declan Conlon, is less thrilled but gruffly conciliatory.) It is easy to feel sympathy for Brian: the way he chafes against slotting back into a hardscrabble life he had hoped to leave behind seems relatable. But there is a casual selfishness to the way he leans on his ma, who instantly reverts to picking up after him, slipping him beer money and even quietly liberating oyster cages from her workplace to help him get started up again.
Mescal sours his natural charm to bring Brian’s character flaws to the surface, playing him as self-confident but rudderless, callow yet alarmingly callous. Things come to a head when on a night out he reconnects with old flame Sarah (Aisling Franciosi), an ambiguous reunion that threatens to scandalise the village. Aileen is instinctively on her son’s side but through Watson’s empathetic performance you can gradually sense the scales might begin to fall from her eyes, not just about Brian but also the chauvinistic elements of the local community in general.