Masculinity in Crisis: Peter Mackie Burns on Rialto

Daphne director Peter Mackie Burns returns with fine-grained drama Rialto, which follows a middle-aged Dublin dock worker going through a crisis. The Glaswegian director tells us how the likes of Chekhov, Mike Leigh and David Bowie influence his work

Article by Jamie Dunn | 21 Feb 2020
  • Rialto

Peter Mackie Burns is only two features into his filmmaking career, but a distinct style is already beginning to form. Not that the Glaswegian director has time for my attempts to label him an auteur. Speaking to me down the blower from a cafe on Dumbarton Road, near his home in the West End of Glasgow, the 52-year-old is quick to shoot down the notion of a stylistic link between his vibrant debut feature Daphne and his follow-up Rialto, a delicately told story of a middle-aged Dubliner with a wife and two adult kids, who suddenly finds his life in freefall.

“For me, my approach to the material isn't intellectual; it's purely a reaction to what's going on around me at the time and what I happened to be reading or thinking about,” Burns tells me of his process. “I don't know if anyone makes that type of decision. I suppose if you're an established master, you may have your territory that you explore. But I’ve made two films; I'm finding my feet.”

Burns is similarly straightforward when it comes to how he got involved in the project. The film is written by the great Irish writer Mark O'Halloran, who’s best known for his fruitful collaborations with Lenny Abrahamson, penning 2004’s Adam & Paul and 2007’s Garage. When I ask Burns if he feels Rialto swims in the same universe as O'Halloran’s earlier bittersweet studies in Irish masculinity, he swerves the comparison. “I can't really speak for Mark or Lenny's work other than to say that I'm a huge fan of both. The script just came along and I was interested in it from a personal perspective.

"I don't really know enough about the Irish film scene to offer a huge opinion other than the work spoke to me and I thought it had a universal appeal in a sense.” When the job landed in his lap, Burns wasn’t even aware that O'Halloran had adapted Rialto from his 2011 stage play Trade. “I've never seen the play – I didn't even know it was a play until after I had a draft and I was at work on it in preproduction. It was only then that I read the play version.”

He would have found a significantly different piece of work. Trade is a short duologue set in a crumby B&B where an older married man (Colm) and a young male prostitute (Jay) talk to each other and try to find a connection. In Rialto, O'Halloran has opened the play out to explore Colm’s home and work-life, and slowly reveals what has led him to seek out the affections of this young man he spots in a shopping mall. 

“The quality of Mark's writing is really, really high,” says Burns. “I thought it was very interesting to make a film where the setup may seem perhaps familiar, but the journey where the character goes, how he gets there, is unusual and surprising. And that's the thing that really resonated with me.”

What spoke to Burns when he first read the script was its authenticity. “I'm a huge fan of Cassavetes, among many other people,” he explains, “so I suppose I’m drawn to work that feels as if it's genuine, that feels as if it's drawn from life, rather than drawn from other movies. It’s something I always look for when I'm looking at scripts, you know a character or a way of life, and Rialto just felt so authentic to me, how this character was just a man making the most awful mistakes through grief.”

As well as being distinguished by an outstanding script, Rialto also features extremely fine performances from its lead actors, Tom Vaughan-Lawlor and Tom Glynn-Carney, who play the middle-aged sadsack father Colm and Jay, the teenage rent boy Colm falls for, respectively. “It's a complex relationship between the two men,” explains Burns. “It's victim and aggressor, and almost father and son sometimes, so dark and disturbing in that sense. But they do seem to share something, which is the ability to talk about their feelings and their fears with each other. And I thought, well that's really interesting.” The prostitute and punter relationship is a well-worn trope in cinema, but Rialto breaks through the old cliches. “I think what Mark is very good at doing is making characters that live and breathe. They feel complex and naughty and flawed – you know, like all of us to a greater or lesser degree.”

This point is key. Colm is not your typical movie character. He is very recognisable, though, in that he’s crushingly ordinary, and that’s exactly why the character appealed to Burns. “Colm is someone you'd see every day at work, but you’d never realise they've got momentous chaos and tragedy and change going on in their lives. And that speaks to me. I've been a fan of Mike Leigh since I was an avid cinema-goer as a kid, and I always loved that he made movies about the kinds of people we know. And I suppose later, reading Chekhov made me feel…” Burns stops mid-sentence to reprimand himself (“Oh god, I've mentioned the dreaded C-word, or T-word if you like to spell it in the Russian style”), before continuing: “[Chekhov]’s all about the inner lives of people and what isn't said. And I thought, ‘Oh, there's material in there to explore – these stories about people's lives that remain unspoken or unknown to others.’”

At this point in the conversation, I try in vain once again to establish an auteurist connection between Daphne and Rialto. Despite having diametrically opposed protagonists – the eponymous Daphne is a larger-than-life party girl; Colm is a stoic homebody – they are both finely-detailed character studies about people going through life-shattering, existential crossroads. “I didn't set out to make two character-based films with the main characters in crises,” he says. “However, if you are making a film, the characters through drama tend to be in crises because we look at and we examine their lives.”

I have better luck quizzing Burns about the vivid sense of place in both films, and how his characters and their environments seem intertwined. “I suppose I'm very interested in the urban experience. Cities especially interest me and how people rub up against each other, and how ancient and modern history are built on top of each other and the confluence of those elements.”

This love for cities is particularly felt in Daphne, in which the character seems to vibrate with the same energy as her diverse neighbourhood of Elephant and Castle. “London – and south London especially – is of great intrigue to me because I suppose I'm interested in sociology and I'm interested in history as well.” Colm’s hometown of Dublin proved a similarly rich canvas. “I found the dock and the neighbourhood where Colm grew up fascinating.” The title Rialto refers to a working-class area in south Dublin which had a terrible heroin problem in the 80s. “Colm hails from there, and his mother still does. And the writer Mark lives there and he's exceptionally lazy, so he just looked out the window and said, OK, I know what I'm calling this.”

Burns reckons his interest in place stems from his love of David Bowie. “When I was a teenager, Bowie would talk about his Berlin period, and how place was enormously important to him in making stuff and I think that stuck with me.” Burns stops in his tracks again, realising he’s made another faux pas. “I'm doing well comparing my work to geniuses, aren't I?” he laughs. “But I think Bowie gave me the impression that whatever you were, wherever you lived, wherever you're travelling to, had an effect on your work, whatever your work was.”

Rialto is released in UK cinemas on 15 May via Break Out Pictures, and screened at Glasgow Film Festival 2020