Edinburgh 2015: ‘Iona’ review


This year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival drew to a close with Iona (2015), Scott Graham’s follow-up to his much praised debut feature Shell (2012). Set against the beautiful, isolated terrain of the titular Scottish island, Iona retains much of the previous film’s affinity for avocative cinematography and the hidden, often unarticulated troubles lurking within, even if its narrative doesn’t prove to be quite as interesting. After a brutal crime, Iona (Ruth Negga) escapes Glasgow with her teenage son Bull (Ben Gallagher) and seeks refuge on her namesake island, where she finds safety with Daniel (Douglas Henshaw).

As she settles back into rural life, helping to pick strawberries and attending the local ceilidh, her son’s bad conscience – coupled with suppressed feeling for Daniel and bad blood between her and childhood friend Elizabeth (Michelle Duncan) – bubble beneath the surface. As he did with Shell, Graham focuses much of the film’s attention on reflection as Iona attempts to sidestep her troubles and fit back into her past and Bull struggles with the reasons behind their abrupt relocation. The narrative, however, unravels in a way that lacks force. There’s no sense of threat whatsoever until the final few minutes where the veneer give way and the film lurches into melodrama as it tries to pack a great deal into a limited period of time. The characters’ backgrounds and motives are also weakly sketched, which in turns makes them difficult to connec with.

The fumbled script aside, Iona is marvellous to look at. Every inch of the screen has been delicately considered with cinematographer Yoliswa von Dallwitz packing raw emotion into every frame, often heightened by the bleak, raggedy nature of the boundless locale. As much as the film doesn’t lay it on thick with dialogue and soundtrack (only two scenes feature music, both of which are for dramatic reasons), there’s myriad looks, glances and gestures that convey what the characters are feeling and thinking in a much more striking way than words probably could. An unsettled atmosphere lingers throughout, but in comparison to the fantastic Shell, Iona feels like a bit of a step backwards for Graham. He owns the camera and draws out stunning performances from his entire cast, but the script is left wanting. As such it feels as though it runs a little long, but it’s beautiful and there are enough small moments in Iona that compensate for the lack of a cohesive, especially interesting, narrative.

The Edinburgh International Film Festival programme, ticketing details and more can be viewed at edfilmfest.org.uk.

Jamie Neish | @EmptyScreens