In trying to describe An Island, I’m immediately struck by a contradiction within my impressions. Two adjectives spring to mind: lush and austere. The two aren’t complementary terms, and yet Rory Byrne’s ability to encompass both ideas into this short animation feels like it hints at what is special here, as truly gorgeous animation, steeped in sensory detail, immerses the audience within the strikingly spare, interior journey of its protagonist from the depths of grief to the peak of new hope.
You may have seen what I did there in that last line, and for sure, An Island is heavy on the symbolism. However it is also rather straightforward. Though it incorporates a patch of surreality as the structure of the story is similar to a vision quest, for the most part it is highly grounded within a poetic observation of nature. The film is, first and foremost, resolutely and unapologetically cinematic—this is not the type of film to pop on your phone while waiting in line at the market—both in its art and its patient, drawn-out storytelling, An Island begs to be seen on your biggest screen, with your full attention, in order to be drawn into its rhythms and to fully lose yourself in its thematic arc. The film is not plot-heavy, and a distracted watch is sure to disappoint—however a viewer that approaches it with intention, and whom is emotionally open, has the potential to be profoundly moved.
In that sense the film attempts to mirror within its runtime the arc of its main character, as art and direction duplicate the sense of stillness and communion with nature that our lead experiences. Byrne wanted to make a simple film that portrayed the different cycles of life by giving equal importance to landscape, human, animal, and plant life, and to do so drew inspiration from the landscape of west Kerry, Ireland and the poetry of Seamus Heaney. Through this approach he has created something that is, yes, austere—physical, and remote, but still possessing a potent emotional core.
While dealing with similar ideas of mortality and the breathtaking awe of the human experience, An Island is ultimately quite different from Coda, the previous film from this small Dublin-based independent studio, And Maps and Plans. Coda has become one of the most-viewed and most-beloved short animations of the decade, and while I struggle to see An Island receiving a similarly rapturous reception, this film is, arguably, a step up in the beauty of its design, and the stylistic and storytelling diversity it shows bodes well for the studio as a burgeoning creative powerhouse.
Ireland has emerged in recent decades as a hotbed for independent animation, with the success of Cartoon Saloon (The Secret of Kells, The Breadwinner) providing a big-name tentpole for the scene, and this film was created with the support of the top government organizations within the country: Screen Ireland, RTÉ, BAI. Byrne says the next step is a feature film, and the And Maps And Plans team is currently in the early stages of that project.