To get ahead in life you need to be a bitch. That’s the advice a mother gives her daughter in director Abner Pastoll’s Northern Ireland set thriller A Good Woman Is Hard to Find, which is available via Video on
Demand. Over the film’s runtime we’ll watch said daughter, young widow Sarah, go from a timid bundle of nerves to an avenging angel in convincing fashion, thanks to a stellar performance from Sarah Bolger.
When we see Sarah first she’s covered in blood, her face replete with a mix of shock and resignation. But wait until you see the other fella! The cold opening is revealed as a flash forward and we’re subsequently introduced to Sarah as she struggles to hold her young family together in the wake of her husband Steven’s murder. Having witnessed the killing, Sarah’s young son, Ben (Rudy Doherty), has been rendered mute in a permanent state of shock. Newspaper reports claimed Steven was a drug dealer, an accusation Sarah refuses to believe, much to the chagrin of her cold-hearted mother, Alice (Jane Brennan), who never approved of him to begin with.
If a good woman is hard to find, in this dystopian portrayal of urban Ulster, a good man is even more of a unicorn. In fact, the only good man here, the late Steven, is literally a dead man. Sarah is treated with contempt and disdain by every man she meets, from the supermarket security guard who propositions her in the belief that she’s a prostitute, to the police officer who patronizingly asks “What is with you women?” when called to a disturbance at her home.
Sarah is taken advantage of by another man in the form of low level drug dealer Tito (Andrew Simpson), who uses her house to hide after robbing a bag of coke from a pair of mobsters. Tito insists on forming a business partnership with the hapless Sarah - he will stash his drugs in her home and give her 40% of his profits. Initially reluctant, Sarah grows somewhat comfortable with the arrangement when it allows her to finally put some decent food in her kids’ bellies. But what she doesn’t realize is that Tito is wanted by vicious drug kingpin Leo Miller (Edward Hogg), who may have a connection to Steven’s death.
In 2008, two young Irish actresses starred in Young Adult adaptations. Yet while Saoirse Ronan went on to superstardom following her role in City of Ember, Bolger’s leading turn in The Spiderwick Chronicles failed to provide the same springboard for her career as her compatriot. Bolger has largely been relegated to supporting roles in film and TV, with the rare lead in low budget productions like Emelie, in which she’s chillingly convincing as the babysitter from hell. It’s a shame, as she’s every bit as talented as Ronan, and A Good Woman Is Hard to Find provides her with the meaty role she’s been crying out for over the last decade. In a lesser actor’s hands, Sarah’s arc from a mousy widow who cowers in the face of adversity to a lipstick clad, pistol wielding seeker of justice would have come off as cartoonish, but Bolger is so convincing that she keeps the narrative firmly within the boundaries of social realism. Her face, with premature bags under her eyes, is a portrait of a woman on the edge of collapsing under the weight society and her unfortunate circumstances have placed on her young shoulders. You desperately want someone to give her a hug, but they’d probably just use such an opportunity to feel her up.
Ronan Blaney’s script and Pastoll’s direction combine for an impressively efficient piece of classical storytelling. Everything is laid out neatly for the viewer to follow without ever forcing us to listen to any expository speeches, and what initially seem like throwaway details serve to lay the groundwork for important later moments. Take the blackly comic vignette that sees a horny Sarah use a kitchen knife to prise open one of her kids’ toys to steal its batteries for her vibrator. It’s an amusing bit of light relief, but it crucially serves to prevent us asking why Sarah has a kitchen knife to hand in a pivotal moment later on. Hitchcock would be proud of this type of storytelling, and there’s a nod to Dial M for Murder in the scene in question.
What holds A Good Woman Is Hard to Find back from being a wholly satisfying piece of low budget genre filmmaking is the presence of Hogg as stereotypical gangster Miller. Aside from his English accent sticking out like a sore thumb in the film’s Irish setting, his performance is ridiculously over the top, completely out of step with his fellow performers. The character of Miller feels like he belongs in a Guy Ritchie movie, and a sub-Tarantino-esque scene in which he tortures two youths while monologuing about his love of a good metaphor is a cringe-worthy moment that takes you out of a story the movie has done so well to hook you into. Replace Hogg’s Miller with a more believable villain and Pastoll’s film might join the ranks of the great modern gritty thrillers.
A Good Woman Is Hard To Find 3 ½ Stars out of 5
Directed by: Abner Pastoll; Starring: Sarah Bolger, Edward Hogg, Andrew Simpson, Jane Brennan
Eric Hillis is a film critic living in Dublin who runs the website TheMovieWaffler.com