In September 2008, the Irish government gave a blanket guarantee to the six main banks in the country’s financial services sector. No strings attached, no overseeing, no transparency. In effect, a blank check was handed to organisations low on funds. This decision, which obviously fell way short of outright nationalization, was disastrous; it tied the state to the debts of the banks, and eventually resulted in a total collapse of Ireland’s economy which in turn necessitated the intervention of the "Troika" — the IMF, ECB and European Commission. The Guarantee attempts to tell the story of how this fiscal catastrophe came to pass, identifying the main players and their motives along with a crash course in the vagaries of international finance. Colin Murphy adapts his stage play of the same name, and Ian Power takes up the directorial reins for what is intended to be a tense display of political mismanagement and disregard for social consequence.
A brief recap for those unfamiliar: an economic boom in the late nineties and early noughties led to a burgeoning middle class in Ireland. This class desired lavish housing to go with their newly-found earning power, and so took out loans to purchase their luxury homes. Irish banks lacked the savings required as collateral for such lending, and so used the resources of German banks, as the workers in Germany were and are noteworthy for being, in the main, savers rather than spenders. Unfortunately (and predictably), this process spawned a property bubble that inflated and inflated and inflated until bursting, spectacularly, in the autumn of 2008. The policies of successive governments, along with a financial regulator not so much asleep at the wheel as furiously egging on the real drivers, the money markets, contributed to what was a total disaster for the country and its citizens.
Sadly, if you lack any knowledge of the events in question, this film will not shed any light; indecipherable jargon and bland statements are absolutely rife, with little-to-no explanation of what is actually going on. Anglo Irish Bank’s head honcho Sean Fitzpatrick is just about the only representative of the banks who is properly introduced, while on the government side we really only see Taoiseach Brian Cowan and his Minister for Finance, Brian Lenihan, for any length of time at all. “We’re fucked,” blurts out Sean’s lackey David Drumm on more than one occasion. Ok...why are you fucked? Oh, sorry, no time to elaborate folks, on to the next scene of a banking official or government employee making a concerned face. At one point, Cowan angrily rants that he “didn’t get into politics to nationalise the fuckin’ banks!” Well...why not? What’s so wrong with nationalisation? No time to explain that one either, no? Ah, my mistake.
The casting is atrocious, with none of the main actors looking, sounding, or feeling like their real-life counterparts. Ministers squirm in interviews in ways that never occurred — nor would occur — in any actual situation, and the token woman appears to exist as a character purely to make aghast faces as the reality of the crisis sinks in. Lenihan will explain something vital to her – something the uninformed viewer can neither make head nor tail of – and she will subsequently be seen googling that something on her computer later on, before dutifully donning her shocked visage. David Murray struggles manfully in his role as the beleaguered Minister for Finance, but he is just too unlike the real figure to be convincing. Likewise, Gary Lydon is an actor of real pedigree, but as the Irish Taoiseach he fails to be believable at all. Three of the cast double-up with their roles, with needlessly confusing results; Peter Coonan, who plays the aforementioned Drumm as well as a Central Bank official, and Morgan C. Jones, who plays Fitzpatrick as well as a government advisor called O’Sullivan, at least look different in each of their performances. Orla Fitzgerald, on the other hand, was so one-dimensional that I failed to spot that she was actually playing two separate people entirely – the assistant to Lenihan, and also a hedge fund CEO.
A few words for the cinematography, which is uniformly awful. Interviews take place in almost total darkness for no real reason whatsoever, while bankers knock back drinks in the least believable bar in the world. There are no second unit shots to establish a location or provide a sense of national importance to the proceedings, so it is painfully obvious that everything takes place in a few rooms and a car. The bargain-basement sets only serve to remove the audience from what is transpiring, and for such an intimate film this immersion-breaking is almost as criminal as the acts on show. Vehicle lights are super-imposed, again for no apparent reason, and there are constant close-ups of characters’ faces which do nothing except highlight the paucity of the make-up budget. The highlight — or lowlight — is a later shot whereby the camera pulls back from the doorway of a crucial meeting, until through the gloom the door is closed and you expect the credits to roll...only to jump-cut to the Taoiseach’s face as the film continues for another half hour or so.
Unsurprisingly, the individuals outside the corridors of power rarely get a look in. The masses are represented, respectively, by a Gaelic games handball player in a nightmare sequence, and a small boy with a teddy bear during a press conference. Seriously. I wish I were making this up. At no point during the proceedings are there any depictions of the titular Guarantee’s impact on regular people, or any discussion of how the ongoing financial crisis will affect the population at large. When Uwe Boll, of all people, shows the true horror of the Great Recession in a better fashion than your movie, you probably should be questioning your own artistic merits. This is neither a call to arms nor an in-depth portrayal of the Machiavellian machinations by establishment figures. Instead, it is a series of two-dimensional reconstructions that might work to buttress a television documentary, but flounders on the big screen. Flimsily written, lazily shot and dreadfully acted, the film’s low production values match its subpar storytelling.
There is a pressing need for a revealing examination of what happened in Ireland in the months and years leading up to the Great Recession — we have the excellent Inside Job by Charles Ferguson for a more global focus – so the shoddy, skin deep approach on show is all the more disappointing. Thorough investigation, research of the main players and an understanding of the systemic fault lines are all prerequisites to creating art which tells us something new about capitalist crises, and they are all sorely lacking in this film. A narrative which weaves the internal, inherent corruption of the ‘power players’ with an appreciation of how their actions impact on the day-to-day lives of working class people, along with a basic, but not overly simplistic, explanation of why the structure of capitalism makes such booms and busts inevitable, would be welcome. Given a taut screenplay with crisp dialogue, in the hands of a socially-conscious director and with a cast of able performers, you can easily see how a film depicting the crash could be a cinematic journey worth embarking upon.
Watching The Guarantee is a frustrating experience, because in the hands of more capable artists it could have been a masterpiece. Instead, it is as rotten as the events it fails to adequately portray. A real opportunity missed.
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Sebastian Clare is a writer and film reviewing living in Ireland.