By Michael McNulty
Before Room thrust Lenny Abrahamson into the Hollywood limelight, the Irish born director toiled away making quietly powerful, low budget movies, the first of which was Adam and Paul. Written by Mark O’Halloran, who also stars in the film, Adam and Paul is a smack head odyssey, a gritty tragicomedy, poignant in its observations and that gently tugs at the heartstrings.
The plot is very simple. It’s a day in the life of two junkies in Dublin as they scour the city trying to scrape together enough money to score a dose of heroin. It is in the simplicity that the film really sings, painting with every emotion a devastatingly true to life portrait of life on the fringes.
Abrahamson expertly captures Adam and Paul’s (Mark O’Halloran and Tom Murphy) existence as they drift along motorways and down high streets like zombies in a heroin hungry fog. They are always moving, desperately searching for a means to score. The two are a modern day, strung out Laurel and Hardy with a friendship that is founded in love, co-dependence and an insatiable thirst for heroin. They stumble into situations, the tragedies of which play out like comedic hijinks. They try to steal a purse in a café, bread from a supermarket and a television, they keep look out as two low rent thugs rip off a petrol station, all of which end in disaster. The laughs are there and yet it is delicately handled, a balanced mix of gentle, sad and funny that reveals the tender tragedy of the two’s relationship.
Throughout the film the characters are referred to as Adam and Paul, but it is never specified who is who. The two come as a set, they travel as a unit, there is no Adam without Paul and there is no Paul without Adam. In this detail Abrahamson introduces another dimension to his film. The central character’s lack of name based definition throws them into a world of anonymity. In our inability to differentiate Adam from Paul, the characters themselves become stripped of a personal identity and their own sense of self. It makes a poignant statement about the destructive nature of addiction and how it isolates.
However, it is in this isolation that Abrahamson manages to bring us closer to Adam and Paul. He breathes a humanity into them and their plight that is so often overlooked in the real world. Adam and Paul are people with lives and histories that extend back before addiction swallowed them whole. In one exchange they have with an aggressive Bulgarian immigrant, who the two have misjudged as being Romanian, they ask, “Why are you here?” To which he angrily replies, “Did you ever ask yourself why are you here?” A casual exchange is given existential weight as they and we are given pause for reflection on why and how Adam and Paul got to where they are.
The film is remarkable in the way it creates such sympathy for its characters and their situation and you find yourself in conflict with the narrative and the reality of Adam and Paul existence. The relentlessness of their efforts to cop a baggie of the brown, their mumbling and bumbling and pausing to take a shit in a back alley is exhausting. At one point one of them says, “Why can’t things be easy, just for once. Just for once to be easy and fine and relaxed and to be lucky,” and for a moment you want nothing more than for the two to have exactly what they are after, to catch a break and to score.
This is a beautifully subtle film, gritty and bleak, but with bittersweet warmth. Both performances are superb, with O’Halloran and Murphy understanding the dynamic of their relationship and playing off of each other excellently.