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Knuckle
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Knuckle – Review

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

For generations, the Irish traveller community have been fiercely proud of their heritage, prepared to fight to defend the honour of their clans.
The Quinn McDonaghs and the Joyces are two of the rival families, whose animosity dates back to a punch-up that had devastating consequences, years ago, in London.
Knuckle is the result of film-maker Ian Palmer’s decade spent following the unbeaten pride of the Quinn McDonaghs, James, and those around him – including his younger brother Michael – as they grow-up and take part in organised bare-knuckle fights in remote country lanes, refereed by members of neutral clans.
Some do it for the money, but most do it for the pride and honour that comes of being the King of the Gypsies.

WHAT’S IT LIKE?

So much of the fighting we’re used to seeing on the big screen is more violent and bloody than this, but when you know it’s staged for the cameras, it’s somehow easier to watch.
But seeing grown men, trying to punch each other’s lights out in a cold, wet, country lane, under the watchful eyes of a handful of neutral observers, is altogether different. Noses are really getting broken. Blood is really dripping from their wounds.
James Quinn McDonagh is the skilled patriarch of the clan, but others we see are less fighters than they are human punch-bags, flailing out randomly and taking bloody punishment as long as they can.
This isn’t Rocky. Real fights are ugly, sluggish. Knuckle is brutal, painful, visceral stuff. It’s also fascinating to see the extent to which the bare-knuckle fight culture permeates through the traveler communities, learn about the origins of these life-long enmities, see the videos each clan produce to challenge others to fights and witness the reaction of other family members – including the wives and mothers – to the interminable battle for dominance.
It’s a voyeuristic documentary; Ian Palmer shows us the travelers in their own world, giving us subtitles to help us decipher their strong Irish gypsy accents. The director himself interviews James from time to time, from off camera, but never gets on screen himself and never interferes. He, like us, is just sitting and watching – like watching animals fighting each other in a wildlife documentary. Initially he, like us, can’t believe what he’s seeing, but by the end, nothing surprises him.
Some fighters are honorable and just want to get out of the game – others are determined to keep fighting until their rivals concede.
But old rivalries die hard and over the ten years or so that we follow these travelers, the clans don’t make peace. They’ll never make peace, and therein lies the problem from a cinematic point of view.
Our central character, James, tries to give up, but he’s enticed back and then he gives up again, but apart from him, everyone else is happy to keep the pattern going. To them, this is their life, but to us it seems futile – however beat up they get, however much blood is shed, as soon as they’re fit and ready to go again, they’ll be at it with gusto. Nothing really changes.
We don’t get a sense at the start where this film is heading – what the conclusion might be. And the big fight at the end doesn’t even involve our protagonist.
None of this makes for an emotionally gripping film.
Ultimately, Knuckle is little more than a string of admittedly fascinating fist-fights and chest-beating challenges but most of the characters are uneducated, two-dimensional and lack any sense of cinematic drama.
Given the amateur picture quality – which, interestingly, gets better as the low-budget film-making technology improves over the decade of production – and the lack of emotional drama, the subject matter would feel much more comfortable as a one-hour TV documentary. The extra half an hour and the extra fights don’t really tell us anything more than we’ve already discovered.

Opens nationwide on 5th August 2011

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