Few things are tougher to watch, in real life or in the movies, than someone's heart slowly breaking. Such is the case with Eden, in which Billy and Breda Farrell's marriage lies in a state of quiet and deepening crisis. As the couple's tenth wedding anniversary approaches, Breda (Eileen Walsh) finds herself increasingly alienated from Billy (Aidan Kelly), and Eden sets out charting the trajectory of her despair. It's as if producer David Collins, of 2006's Irish sleeper hit Once, director Declan Recks, and screenwriter Eugene O'Brien (adapting his own play) were channeling Mike Leigh or John Cassavetes in bringing their marital drama to the screen.
Billy works as a repairman for the local phone company, and when he isn't shunting around town in his van, he's downing pints at the local pub, often alone, sometimes in the company of one of his drinking buddies, all single or divorced. Billy says cordial things to his wife, a word of flattery about her cooking or her new hairdo, but it's dawning on him, through the veil of his own denial, that he's a deeply unhappy man. Breda's in denial too, afraid to confront Billy about the widening rift between them, and the consequences of letting dark truths out in the open. Over bottles of wine, she confides her disappointments and loneliness to her best friend, Eilish (Lesley Conroy), and entertains fantasies, sexual and otherwise, that offer her escape.
Adding to the couple's dilemma is their community -- a small Irish village of close-knit friends, neighbors, and gossip-mongers. So it's inevitable that Breda's domestic problem is a hot topic of gossip, circulated by the venal and pompous Yvonne (Kate O'Toole). Meanwhile, with heedless candor, Billy allows himself to become infatuated with a beautiful teenager, Imelda (Sarah Greene). This is a man full of repressed self-loathing and anger at his wife perhaps for a life wasted in marriage. Gradually, though, his desire for Imelda takes over his thoughts and his actions, at the cost of being a father and husband. Billy is a cad, a royal jerk who can't help himself, and director Recks and screenwriter O'Brien make no bones about it: The more the man tests the boundaries of his own negligence, the more he invites our contempt.
For Breda, it's all supposed to turn for the better on their anniversary. The couple makes plans to celebrate with friends, before repairing home for what Breda hopes will be an evening with Billy that'll save the marriage. The final act of Eden is an expertly crafted, finely written exercise in emotional suspense as Breda holds out her last figments of hope, but when it's clear Billy's mind is elsewhere ---specifically on the writhing figure of Imelda on the dance floor -- we watch with anxiety the wreckage that results.
Billy runs off to make his move on Imelda, leaving Breda to ponder the shock of her abandonment. What happens next, as the two go their separate ways, isn't so much surprising, especially within the genre of the marital melodrama, but it comes as a shock to the system nonetheless, thanks to the freshness and innocence of both Welsh and Kelly's performances. Both actors are absolutely first-rate throughout, and what they, along with Recks and O'Brien, get so acutely right is how couples in well-established relationships communicate: Breda and Billy say very little to each other, but it's what's between the words, what's under and above the language, that conveys truths that neither can vocalize.
With such accomplished performances and writing, it's doubly disappointing that the final reckoning between Breda and Billy never lives up to the desperate acts that precede it. The two have it out, but here O'Brien gets cold feet, and opts for a clipped coda in which Walsh and Kelly fret and bark at each other, a prelude certainly to the marriage counseling to come. The exchange communicates nothing of the full breadth of consequences that surely awaits these two wounded people, and we wonder where the courage of the film fled to so suddenly. Maybe it was left back on the dance floor, with Imelda.
Put on your red shoes and dance the blues.