Review: “Cloudburst” by Thom Fitzgerald

It’s hard to believe Olympia Dukakis is 80 when you see her tearing down the road in a gigantic 4×4 as Stella in Thom Fitzgerald’s latest film, Cloudburst. A formidable old broad in a lumberjack shirt and a cowboy hat, Stella swears louder, drinks more and throws punches better than most truck drivers, in this story of geriatric lesbian love.

Adapted from the eponymous award-winning play, Cloudburst is the story of two elderly ladies who run away to Canada to legalise their love so they can stay together as old age looms. Dot, played by Irish Oscar-winner Brenda Fricker, and Stella have been together for 31 years but Dot is nearly blind and her health is declining by the day.

Olympia Dukakis and Brenda Fricker in Cloudburst

Olympia Dukakis and Brenda Fricker in Cloudburst

Dot’s granddaughter has somehow managed to make it past the age of 30 without noticing that her grandmother and Stella are not just knitting buddies . There are no lack of hints; Stella doesn’t look like the knitting type.

When Dot takes a turn for the worse, the granddaughter bursts into their lives and commits her grandmother to a nursing home against the wishes of Stella, who is her next of kin in spirit but not on paper. But Stella is not one to go away quietly. She smuggles Dot out of the nursing home and proposes to her.

The ladies take off in Stella’s battered red Jeep and cross the border. During their Canadian adventure, they pick up a drifting young dancer with a troubled background, played by newcomer Ryan Doucette and his formidable abs.

Fitzgerald wrote the part of Stella with Dukakis in mind. The part of Dot was initially promised to another actress who passed away before filming began. Fitzgerald then approached Brenda Fricker not just because she was the only other person he felt would do the role justice, but also because she was not one of the “famous bitches” Dukakis refuses to work with.

It’s interesting that Cloudburst was chosen to open the Dublin International Film Festival this year. Not least because feisty Fricker admitted to ringing the organiser to tell her how good she was in it and order her to watch it.

Brenda Fricker in Cloudburst

Brenda Fricker in Cloudburst

Cloudburst addresses a topic of great relevance in the Ireland of today, as civil partnerships were granted to same-sex couples in 2010. Organisations like Marriage Equality are still fighting for the right to same-sex marriage, on the grounds that civil partnerships differ from marriage on 169 counts.

A home jointly owned by a same-sex couple in Ireland isn’t considered a family home for example. The unfairness of this kind of situation is starkly brought to life during the opening sequence of the film, where Dot’s granddaughter tries to use the long arm of the law to remove Stella from Dot’s life and home.

The film also addresses the topic of geriatric love, which is generally invisible on and off-screen whatever the sexual orientation of the couple.

While the film is a joyous experience, some characters do feel woefully underdeveloped. The granddaughter, played by Kristin Booth, goes from being a vindictive homophobic pest to a reformed flowergirl in less time than it would take Katherine Heigl to find a husband in any rom-com she has ever starred in. The underlying issues of this character could have been better explored.

On occasion the flow is broken when a scene abruptly ends as if a curtain closes, betraying the film’s theatrical origin. And overall, the film struggles to find an identity. It’s pitched as a comedy but at times, comedy overshadows the darker side of the characters’ battle, the long and arduous road they are travelling physically and mentally towards recognition.

Cloudburst by Thom Fitzgerald

Cloudburst by Thom Fitzgerald

The pace of the film often means that the audience is wrenched away from quiet reflection far too quickly for sadness to really emerge. The only tears shed were tears of mirth when this story also deserved tears of sadness and frustration.

But the sweeping Canadian scenery, snappy dialogue and sincerity of the performances made this film a fantastic opener for the Dublin international film festival. If only to hear a cranky 80 year-old Dukakis with a mouth like a sewer announce that she hopes her last meal is located between K.D. Lang’s legs.

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About monicaheck
Monica Heck is a bilingual freelance writer and journalist based in Dublin, Ireland.

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