Scott Graham’s beautifully shot Iona tells the story of the difficulties encountered by Iona (Ruth Negga), a young mother returning to her birthplace, the island with which she shares her name. Fleeing traumatic circumstances, Iona and her son Bull (Ben Gallagher) attempt to integrate themselves with island society, a process complicated by figures from Iona’s past which serves to test the already fragile bond between mother and son and results in severe consequences for those at the centre of the drama.
Graham’s decision to centre the story around a female protagonist echoes his directorial debut, Shell, in which the Scottish elements also play a part. Ruth Negga gives a gripping performance, exposing Iona’s vulnerability in several flashback sequences which also give us clues related to the traumatic events that triggered her return to the island. Negga combines this fragility with a fierce protectiveness, the sort of behaviour which is instantly recognisable as that of a single mother trying desperately to protect her son. Of the supporting cast, Douglas Henshall is particularly impressive, providing his character, Daniel, with a tough outer shell which, when breached, reveals a damaged and emotionally fraught centre.
The sparseness of dialogue and lack of accompanying music in the opening scenes keeps the audiences’ attention fixed on the uncomfortable silences shared by Iona and Bull. As a result, we are encouraged to question the reasons behind their lack of communication, the circumstances which they flee from and where they are heading. Such a simple technique is utilized to great effect here by Graham, ensuring that the interactions of his characters are what drives the film on, rather than any unnecessary, superfluous dialogue.
At the heart of the film lies the fundamental complexities of human relationships. Iona’s desperate return to her homeland stirs up a variety of emotions in almost everyone she is reacquainted with, including former lover Daniel and his daughter Elizabeth (Michelle Duncan), who is still struggling to deal with the aftermath of her close friend’s departure all those years ago. These connections are complicated further when Elizabeth’s 14-year-old daughter Sarah (Sorcha Groundsell) meets Bull for the first time. Sorcha Grondsell does well not to overplay Sarah’s innocence, whilst Elizabeth proves to be just as wary of Iona’s son as she is protective of him.
On the whole, the measured pace of the action is successful in maintaining the audiences’ interest. The events are allowed to unfold organically, without feeling rushed or scripted. Undoubtedly, Graham utilizes the Scottish landscape to great effect, beautifully capturing the simplistic nature of the island in contrast to the nature of its inhabitants. Iona revels in long takes which demonstrate the uninterrupted tranquillity of the island. More often than not, these scenes juxtapose well with the hardships that the central characters face in attempting to articulate their true feelings towards one another. Yet there are moments where this peaceful serenity yearns for a little more action. At times, the inclusion of another landscape shot fails to give any real emotional weight to the film, with the scenery becoming more of a distraction than a tool through which the story can be told. However, this is only a minor fault in what is otherwise a well-crafted and thoroughly gripping drama.
A far cry from any form of whimsical escapism, Iona is a thoroughly thought-provoking, intelligent film. Graham’s desire to convey the various imperfections and miscommunications that lie at the heart of our language strongly translates onto the screen. The mild pace of the film is ultimately vindicated by a powerful finale which, overwrought with emotion, leaves a formidable mark and will be remembered by audiences for many years to come.