‘All of This Unreal Time’ @ Manchester International Festival – review

‘All of This Unreal Time’, dir. by Aoife McArdle. Source: Manchester International Festival

‘All of This Unreal Time’ (starring Cillian Murphy, written by Max Porter, directed by Aoife McArdle and with music by Aaron Dessner, Bryce Dessner and Jon Hopkins) follows a man (Cillian Murphy) on a rambling journey through a dark, rainy London as he comes to terms with the things in life he regrets, dictating a series of apologies. It explores themes of repentance, death, masculinity and environmentalism. At times, it feels like we are witnessing a religious confession wrought with intimate and relatable personal failures. At others, we see a heartfelt apology to a struggling planet, made on behalf of all humanity.

Its creators note how the piece seeks to distort and merge art forms. It is not only a short film, but also a poem, a musical piece, a dramatic monologue, and for four nights at Manchester International Festival, a full scale art installation.

The installation takes place in the converted Manchester Central railway station, now used as a convention complex and events space. The huge room resembles an aircraft hangar, bathed in darkness with a walk way illuminated by low hanging overhead strip lighting. At the end of the room, the words “I came out here to apologise” are plastered in pink on a large screen.

‘All of This Unreal Time’, dir. by Aoife McArdle. Source: Manchester International Festival

The theme of humankind’s damaging relationship with nature runs heavily throughout the film itself. One line states “I’m sorry I took, and took, and took, and took, and took, and enriched myself without pause, and left deep scars on the skin of the earth”, confronting us directly with humanity’s self-centered, damaging treatment of the planet.

Aoife McArdle’s direction alludes to this throughout the film. One scene sees Cillian Murphy sat in a typically mundane British café whilst a T.V screen above him depicts a raging forest fire. McArdle is suggesting our indifference to such disasters is caused by the everyday and mundane things we take for granted: the systems which allow us to live our day-to-day lives are responsible for this damage, and it is time for us to take note.

‘All of This Unreal Time’, dir. by Aoife McArdle. Source: Manchester International Festival

The film’s central poetic monologue teems with personal regret, bravely vocalising the childhood feelings of guilt which plague so many of us. Murphy’s character states, “Sorry I cheated in the geography test and looked the teacher in the eye and swore I hadn’t” – a poignant reminder of childhood misdeeds. But Max Porter’s script does not gently merge themes. It leaps from small scale and personal feelings of guilt to regret for the human actions slowly destroying our planet: in the very next lines, we hear “sorry I used plastic, diesel, nuclear energy, gasoline, saturated fats, fucking glitter”.

The climax of the film shows Cillian Murphy in a field on the outskirts of London as dawn begins to break. Porter has noted of the piece’s final shot that it has gained meaning in a “post-truth, post-pandemic” era. In the live Q & A session following the film’s premier, he says that the film asks the question: “Men, when given a microphone will you stare down the lens and lie to a populous, to a nation, even to a world?  Will you, despite us all knowing what the truth is, cling to falsehood?”. In this sense, the film not only shows personal and societal regret, but challenges the systems of mistruth which are so dominant in today’s political sphere.

Although written prior to the coronavirus pandemic, Porter’s script is rife with a sense of the present. Its self-reflections ring true to the state of inner questioning many of us have come to inhabit during periods of lockdown. The inner turmoil communicated in Murphy’s speech shows what happens to the mind when it is left to wander and left to dwell on how we have treated those we love.

The film is in essence an apology, yet it does not feel like it sees this apology as a cure to the societal issues it raises. Instead, this apology is a beginning, asking and urging us to do better, and demanding that we take responsibility for our actions.

You can watch All of This Unreal Time online via the MIF website.

Click here to find out what’s on at this year’s MIF and access tickets.