In a supermarket on a sink estate in Belfast, a young single mother named Sarah is performing the weekly shop with her two small children. In her hand is a shopping list with all the necessities required for the family. However, when they reach the tills, Sarah is mortified to find that there simply isn’t enough money in her purse for everything, a dilemma made all the more embarrassing for her by the well-meaning but pitying reaction of the shop assistant at the checkout.
So far so Ken Loach you might think, but A Good Woman is Hard to Find, from director Abner Pastoll (the man behind 2015’s Road Games) takes us down some very unexpected paths. The film’s initial slow-burning stages introduces us to Sarah and her plight as we learn that she is newly widowed, her husband having been murdered by persons unknown. The circumstances of the man’s death remain unsolved because the police, believing him to have been a drug dealer, show little interest in investigating the case and even less sympathy for Sarah’s plight. “Let sleeping dogs lie” a female officer advises when Sarah attends the station to inquire about any progress. But Sarah understandably cannot let sleeping dogs lie. Her son Ben, the only witness to the fatal attack, is mute with grief, a traumatic side-effect that Sarah’s snooty mother seems just as unconvinced by as she is by her daughter’s protestations that her late husband was an innocent man.
Not so innocent is the eccentrically named Tito, a low level criminal chancer who, perhaps as much as a surprise to himself than anyone else, has just pulled off an audacious smash and grab raid on the estate’s local drug dealers. Sarah and Tito’s paths converge when the latter forces his way into her home, demanding a place to hide. Terrified, the downtrodden Sarah tries her best to shield and protect her two children from this menacing interloper, but soon finds that she is out of depth when Tito returns to the house, revealing that he had left his stash there. Sarah pleads with him to leave her and her family alone, that they want nothing whatsoever to do with drugs, but Tito offers her a cut on anything he makes from dealing. Sarah initially refuses, but is soon met with threats of violence from the intimidating young thief. An uneasy alliance develops, in which the once cash-strapped Sarah finds that she can now get the things that the family not only need, but also want, as a result of this unexpected income. But Sarah remains resolute that this can only be a temporary measure, something that Tito is not happy about. Even less happy of course is Leo Miller, the local drug kingpin that he stole from, who begins to piece together various clues as to where his property may be…clues that lead him and his gang to Sarah’s door.
It’s a big ask to weld together two disparate genres like kitchen sink social realism and dark and bloody thrillers. Emmerdale star and horror b-movie filmmaker Dominic Brunt recently tried it with his 2015 film Bait, which similarly pitches economically disadvantaged women against deeply intimidating and dangerous men but, unlike that, Pastoll’s film actually works largely because he isn’t simply making an exploitation feature. The circumstances that Sarah finds herself in are treated with a greater sense of empathy and respect, but also (and crucially) with a degree of realism that means her situation is not simply a launchpad for any gruesome violence that follows. A Good Woman is Hard to Find gets bloody, but it retains an authentic air that is largely achieved through Sarah Bolger’s remarkable and grounded performance in the lead role. Screenwriter Ronan Blaney places the character of Sarah on an incredible journey which Bolger’s deeply real performance sells at every wildly varying stage. Without wanting to give too much of the plot away, her arc takes her from ground down and victimised, panicky and demeaned, to grimly determined and empowered, but it also takes in some comedy too, as evinced by a genuinely funny moment near the start of the film involving a dildo – which goes on to prove integral when Sarah digs deep into her reserves of courage. It’s a great calling card of a role, and marks Bolger out as one to watch.
Unfortunately, this authenticity doesn’t stretch towards some of the other characters, specifically the capriciously psychotic gangster, Leo Miller played by Edward Hogg. I greatly admire Hogg and have done ever since 2009’s quirky Bunny and the Bull (he was also really good recently in the small but crucial role of Jodie Whittaker’s twin in the excellent Adult Life Skills) and whilst he obviously fully commits to the role and delivers in term of unpredictability and menace, his Mancunian accent standing in stark contrast to the Belfast ones surrounding him, the character is little more than a stereotype; a pedant who gets violent when someone doesn’t understand how a metaphor works. This is the kind of villain we have seen too many times before, in films like Sexy Beast and In Bruges, and it’s a shame that this otherwise strong film’s central threat is so predictably one-note, cartoony and familiar. Peaky Blinders star Packy Lee plays one of his henchmen, but such roles require little from the actors other than the ability to look intimidating. Andrew Simpson fares better with the more significant role of Tito, selling the man’s peculiar mix of vulnerability and danger, whilst Jane Brennan as Sarah’s initially chilly mother delivers a performance that you feel positively thaw as, against the odds, mother and daughter eventually reach an understanding together.
Pastoll’s direction is suspenseful and arresting when it comes to the thriller elements, but it is equally at home in exploring the character study nature of the screenplay. This ability is an asset to the production, ensuring that the pace never slackens as it successfully inhabits the hinterland of what is essentially two distinctive genres. The film’s atmosphere is also enhanced by both Richard C Bell’s stylish cinematography and Matthew Pusti’s score, which is filled with ominous discordant tones that place you on the edge of your seat. A Good Woman is Hard to Find hits cinemas on October 25th, and I would say that it is well worth seeking out.