The title appears in small capital letters to the bottom right of the screen, while the centre is occupied by an absence: a mark in the paint of the wall where clearly there was once a crucifix hanging. It is a sign that Laura Ryan (Laura Bayston), gaunt and wasted away with the gnawing of grief, indignation and hatred, has become spiritually hollow, with God removed from her life. Writer/director Paul Holbrook likes to let Bayston explore the extremities of motherhood. In his previous short Hungry Joe (2020), Bayston played a woman sacrificing everything for her omnivorous son, and now in his latest Hollow, she has been left an empty shell by the loss of her six-year-old daughter Lucy (Isabelle Neill) in a car accident.
When we first see Laura in this half-hour short, she is in despair and about to drink cleaning fluid, to the ironically upbeat strains of The Five Satins’ doo-wop ballad Oh Happy Day – but the arrival of case worker Denise (Angie Adler) with news that Lucy’s killer Niall Lavin (Kris Hitchen) has been released early from prison gives Laura a new sense of purpose. So she turns to Father Martin Hill (Karl Collins), the black priest on an otherwise all-white estate, to work through her feelings, perhaps even to receive a blessing. Yet in planning to wreak bitter, Old Testament vengeance against the already tormented Niall, Laura is looking for help that, as a man of God, Martin surely cannot give. Meanwhile this vicar, stuck in a racist community that does not want him, comes with his own inner conflicts and anger, and his own uneasy relationship with the teachings of the Bible.
If Hollow at first seems to offer pure kitchen-sink drama, the naturalism of its location, all poverty, neglect and lawlessness, quickly transforms into a literal – or at least psychological – hell, readily interprenetrated with Laura’s traumatic visions and some queasily stylised nocturnal lighting that is almost gaillo-esque. This trinity of characters, all to varying degrees lost, seek justice and meaning in the absence of God, only for the Lord – or at least Holbrook’s intricate screenplay – to move in mysterious ways. There follows a peculiar, mannered restaging of Biblical myth in the most improbably drab of contemporary settings.
Here, in the end, everybody gets what they both want and deserve (if perhaps not quite in the manner that they, or we, envisaged), as Martin becomes a Jesus-like vessel mediating between – and absorbing – Laura and Niall’s different spiritual needs. What we are witnessing unfold here is a miracle – perhaps even a deus ex machina – which fills in these characters’ emptiness with the Christian values of forgiveness and self-sacrifice. Yet if this story of rage, revenge and redemption hints at the invisible workings of the divine, then it also exposes God’s cruelty, as the film’s triangular resolution offers the mother of all bleakness. Oh happy day!
strap: Paul Holbrook’s short(ish) film plays out its drama of despair, faith and revenge on a contemporary sink estate that is perhaps not so godless.
© Anton Bitel