Scott Graham’s debut feature Shell was a pensive, slow-burning affair that thrived in the notion of subtlety, managing to keep the audience at arm’s length, while maintaining a sense of intimacy. Iona, however, takes a frustratingly different approach, as an all too melodramatic narrative plays out, with seemingly less faith entrusted in the viewer, as we’re spoon-fed, leaving so little to the imagination.
The one principle similarity between the two films, however, is that they’re both named after the eponymous protagonist, in this instance played by the beguiling Ruth Negga. Iona, alongside her teenage son, nicknamed Bull (Ben Gallagher) are on the run, leaving behind a desperate crime scene down in London, to return to the young mother’s childhood home up on the Hebridean Island off the coast of Scotland. Though her surprise arrival delights the widowed Daniel (Douglas Henshall) who had helped raise Iona when a teenager, his daughter Elizabeth (Michelle Duncan) is somewhat more conflicted, as a host of pre-established tensions from the years gone by come back to the forefront.
The picturesque backdrop works as a wonderful contradiction to the narrative at hand, for the serenity is at odds with the sheer anguish and internal conflict within the characters that inhabit it. However we veer into the realm of the melodrama as we approach the latter stages, with so little ambiguity – which had set the tone for what had the potential to be an endearingly elusive piece. There are a handful of moments where you’re craving the closing credits, hoping desperately that Graham will leave the fate of these characters in our hands, but he just keeps on going, losing more and more impact with every passing second.
Nonetheless, the film remains absorbing thanks to a remarkable leading display by the underrated Negga, who shines in the title role. In fact, the performances are the one area where there are no criticisms to be had, for Henshall turns in a nuanced performance, and newcomers Gallagher and Sorcha Groundsell (who plays Elizabeth’s daughter Sarah) prove to be more than accomplished in what is a debut feature film for both of them. Let’s just hope they follow this up in a slightly more efficient way than Graham has managed.