Patrick’s Day is an interesting study of mental illness let down by a lack of conviction, says Ian Maleney Patrick’s Day starts with a definition. The Collins English Dictionary nut-shelling of mental illness; “any of various disorders in which a person’s thoughts, emotions, or behaviour are so abnormal as to cause suffering to himself, herself, or other people”. It’s clear this is something we ought to hold in the front of our minds over the next hour and forty minutes, a vague but useful central pivot that illuminates everything we’re about to see. The story of Patrick’s Day is a simple one. Patrick, a diagnosed schizophrenic, meets Karen, a suicidal air hostess, and falls helplessly in love. Patrick’s mother, Maura, enlists a local police officer, John, to help her break them up and convince Patrick that Karen never existed in the first place.
The first sound we hear is John F. Kennedy’s address to the Dáil in 1963, where he quotes George B. Shaw and indulges in some political plámásing: “It is that quality of the Irish – that remarkable combination of hope, confidence and imagination – that is needed more than ever today. The problems of the world cannot possibly be solved by skeptics or cynics, whose horizons are limited by the obvious realities. We need men who can dream of things that never were, and ask why not.”
The speech fades and is replaced by a song from Damien Dempsey, that balladeer of authenticity, whose sincerity makes up for his lack of artistry. He bellows while he flows; he feels, overflows. He is neither skeptic nor cynic. He is the mirror of Patrick, his aesthetic realisation, reappearing in Patrick’s happiest moments. Throughout the film, music is symbolic of a a sort of higher consciousness, moments of true humanity. Karen plays music when Patrick comes to her hotel room, but Maura turns off the radio when she snoops around Patrick’s bedroom. Patrick rejects the elevator version of Molly Malone – and with it inauthentic, plastic Paddy Oirshness – in favour of Dempsey’s heartfelt storytelling, but the film never rejects JFK’s words and his knowingly sentimental view of the “Irish character”. The way England is used in the film, as someplace truly foreign and unknowable almost, is a strange consequence of this. Philip Jackson’s English cop fancies himself as a comedian and is snobby towards the Irish, who will “laugh at anything”, though we in the audience know he isn’t actually funny at all. Maura is English too, and she is undoubtedly the villain of the piece. Karen leaves for England once she gets pregnant, and disappears altogether from the story – just like that.
The biggest problem with Patrick’s Day is the shallowness of the characters. Maura, the deserted woman figure with a life-devouring child she didn’t ask for, who must control every situation lest she lose even more of herself. Philip Jackson’s guard is just waiting for his daughter (taken away from him by her mother, obviously) to walk into his life so he can redeem himself. Karen is suicidal but lacks any kind of backstory beyond being an air hostess, and so never gives us any way of understanding (or believing) that she is “rotting inside”. Why is she about to kill herself? We never know. These are archetypes and abstract by their very nature. They stand in for the lives of individuals, their preset characteristics designed to bump off each other and elicit desired responses. With such economy in the casting – there are only four real roles in this film – it is disappointing to not get more out of each one. We never quite get a rounded picture of them, a sense of their subjectivity. “What do you see?”, asks Karen. “Woman,” replies Patrick, with the full force of that capital letter behind it.
Patrick’s Day’s strongest moments come through what a slick, uncaring doctor calls Patrick’s first “electro-convulsive experience”, like he’s just tried out a pair of 3D glasses or a scented candle. Here the film wholeheartedly skewers the violence inflicted upon the body by a medical practice keen to diagnose and even more eager to prescribe, to pathologise. Every “abnormal” feeling is treatable, every desired outcome achievable through medication or procedure. If indeed “a mad person is like a faulty machine”, then medicine can fix the problem as a mechanic would – dispassionately, efficiently, expensively. Normality – stability, silence, submissiveness – can easily be restored.
Patrick’s Day works here because it refuses to present a normal against which the abnormal is to be defined. We keep the dictionary definition in our heads and watch as it sticks to every character in turn, as everyone causes suffering to themselves or another. Suffering, pain, love – these are inherent to existence, the cost of living. To dull the senses is inhuman, and nowhere is this more obvious than the home where Patrick is forced to live, where the patients emerge like zombies from their rooms. The sickness isn’t that which brings the patients (inmates?) to the institution, but that which keeps them there.
It is sad then that an epilogue is tacked on, one which seeks to redeem the manipulative mother-figure and the corrupt authority of the cop. Patrick’s darkest moment, when he feels most strongly the violence of the world upon his body and mind, when he begins to follow their lead and hurt himself, ends by fading to white. Then we snap to two years later, when the mother can no longer live with the decisions she’s made and enlists the cop to bring Karen back from England, baby in tow, to be reunited with Patrick. Patrick is insensible now, slow and silent, failing to recognise former co-workers, unable to smile on his birthday, his vision unfocused and his mind dulled, but these visible effects of structural violence are erased upon contact with his objectified love, and everyone is smiling. It’s as if the previous events had never happened. They are now less than nothing, because not only has Patrick’s experience been erased, but so too the decisions of those around him. Their guilt is gone, turned to satisfaction and relief. Their memories are painlessly dissolved, in contrast to the assault undertaken against Patrick’s. Who are we to forgive here? What are we to forget? It’s a weak ending.