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‘The Last Right’ probes dignity in living and dying

“The Last Right” (2019 production, 2021 release). Cast: Michiel Huisman, Niamh Algar, Samuel Bottomley, Brian Cox, Colm Meaney, Michael McElhatton, Eleanor O’Brien, Jim Norton, Julie Sharkey, Catherine Byrne, Aidan O’Hare, Donough Deeney, Shashi Rami, Siobhan Owens. Director: Aoife Crehan. Screenplay: Aoife Crehan. Web site. Trailer.

When it comes to doing right by someone in need, it generally should be fairly easy to determine what to do. Showing compassion and lending a helping hand are practices that come naturally to many of us. But how far should we go with this? What if we’re presented with a sizable request for assistance, one that could easily place quite a burden on us in our attempt at being a Good Samaritan? What’s more, what do we do when we’re faced with having to juggle several such scenarios simultaneously? Such are the circumstances unexpectedly thrust upon a would-be caring benefactor who suddenly finds himself overwhelmed by the pleas placed upon him, as seen in the endearing Irish comedy-drama, “The Last Right.”

Irish-born lawyer Daniel Murphy (Michiel Huisman) has been steadily building a successful career in the US for years. In fact, he’s become so settled across the pond that America seems more like home than Ireland does these days. His ties to the Emerald Isle have diminished significantly, almost as if his homeland has become an afterthought in his outlook. But that changes suddenly when he receives an unexpected phone call learning that his mother, Sarah (Siobhan Owens), has passed away.

With that news, Daniel must return home to make funeral arrangements. But there’s more to it than planning a wake; he must also make some important decisions regarding the future of his junior sibling, Louis (Samuel Bottomley), an autistic young man who has been under Sarah’s care. However, while Daniel sincerely wants to address the needs of his brother’s well-being, this isn’t a good time for him to take on a lot of additional responsibility. He’s working on an important client matter, one that could have significant implications for career advancement. He’s also attempting to salvage a relationship that doesn’t appear to be on the firmest of footings. And, to top things off, the year-end holidays are right around the corner, not exactly the best time to be tackling major life-changing projects. But, being the dutiful son and brother that he is, he boards a plane for Ireland.

While on his flight, the passenger sitting next to Daniel strikes up an unsolicited conversation with him. Given the circumstances, Daniel would probably prefer to simply listen to music on his ear buds, but, to avoid appearing rude, he joins in the chat, albeit somewhat reluctantly. Daniel’s impromptu traveling companion is an elderly gentleman named Padraig (Jim Norton). After an initial exchange of pleasantries, Padraig asks Daniel about the purpose of his trip. When Daniel explains that he’s traveling to arrange his mother’s funeral, Padraig replies that he’s doing roughly the same thing, returning home to handle the wake for his brother, an estranged sibling and his only next of kin, someone he hadn’t seen in years. Padraig is also amused to learn that he and Daniel share the same last name. Indeed, what are the chances of a pair of Murphys showing up on the same flight making a trip to the same destination with a comparable mission in mind?

As the flight progresses, though, circumstances change drastically. Daniel and Padraig take naps, but, unfortunately, Padraig doesn’t wake up from his slumbers, passing away in his sleep. And, as the flight crew investigates the situation, they find Padraig’s passport and discover that sometime before his nap he designated a new next of kin in the document – one Daniel Murphy.

An unusual trio of traveling companions, lawyer Daniel Murphy (Michiel Huisman, center), his younger autistic brother, Louis (Samuel Bottomley, left), and funeral home worker Mary Sullivan (Niamh Algar, right), set out on an even more unusual road trip across Ireland in the delightful comedy-drama, “The Last Right,” now available on cable television and for streaming online. Photo courtesy of Deadpan Pictures.

Daniel is naturally flabbergasted. Upon landing, he attempts to explain to authorities that he had just met Padraig and that they weren’t related. However, in light of their shared last name and Padraig’s designation of Daniel as his next of kin, officials aren’t readily convinced. Daniel, however, insists that authorities will have to handle arrangements for Padraig, given that he must attend to his own more pressing affairs.

Upon arrival at his mother’s home, Daniel is met by more surprises. For example, he starts off by meeting Frank Delaney (Michael McElhatton), who, as it turns out, has been helping Sarah look after Louis’s well-being (not to mention serving as her steady romantic interest). Then there’s Daniel’s reunion with his brother, a meeting that doesn’t go particularly well, especially when he outlines the new living arrangements he’s made for Louis, a plan that would take him away from his beloved Ireland and relocate him to a special facility in the US, an upsetting decision he vociferously protests. But, to complicate matters even further, Daniel receives an unanticipated visit from Officer Sheila O’Neil (Eleanor O’Brien), an earnest but somewhat neurotic new recruit to the local police force, who brings with her a surprise – news that the corpse of Padraig Murphy is ready for whatever final dispensation the deceased’s next of kin – Daniel – is prepared to provide.

Needless to say, Daniel is unsure what to do, but Louis says that, even though Padraig is essentially a stranger, he deserves the same dignified treatment that was accorded to Sarah. To accomplish that, it would mean transporting the body from Daniel’s family homestead in County Cork in the south of Ireland to Padraig’s birthplace, Rathlin Island, in the north. Not only would that mean traversing the length of the Emerald Isle, but it would also involve crossing the border from the Irish Republic into Northern Ireland, a territory of the United Kingdom.

So how is this all to be pulled off? That’s hard to say, especially when questions regarding official possession of the body begin to arise as baffled, bumbling authorities seek to sort out the jumbled circumstances regarding its handling. Suddenly, matters of doing what’s right versus doing what’s legal start to emerge, with Daniel caught squarely in the middle, pressured both by his unyielding brother and the dictates of law enforcement. Can a realistic amenable solution be worked out?

Daniel gets some help (though of a somewhat dubious nature) from the funeral home that handled arrangements for his mother. One of the facility’s staff members, Mary Sullivan (Niamh Algar), steps up to assist, just as she did when she offered valuable emotional support to Louis when attending to Sarah’s arrangements. Mary agrees to help Daniel and Louis transport Padraig’s body up north in exchange for a favor: transportation to a location en route to their destination, one where she needs to handle some kind of undisclosed personal business. Daniel’s not thrilled with the terms of the arrangement, but, if it helps him realize his goal, he’ll go along with it in the interest of what he hopes will be ease and expediency.

While on a flight to Ireland to bury his deceased estranged brother, Padraig Murphy (Jim Norton) unexpectedly befalls a similar fate, setting off an unusual chain of events in writer-director Aiofe Crehan’s debut feature, “The Last Right.” Photo courtesy of Deadpan Pictures.

And so, with that plan in place, Daniel, Louis and Mary head out on a cross-island road trip. It’s a journey that starts off with the best of intentions. Of course, we all know what those intentions are ultimately used to pave, and the unlikely trio quickly finds that out as their misadventure unfolds. A series of incidents involving Louis’s unpredictable behavior, the revelation of Mary’s secrets, spiraling misinterpretations of innocent events and unexpected deep-seeded confessions all combine for an outing that’s anything but smooth sailing. Add to this mayhem allegations of criminal activity, the dogged pursuit of an overzealous detective (Colm Meaney), the gentle but persistent impatience of an officiating minister in waiting (Brian Cox) and the emergence of an international jurisdictional incident drive up the stakes for everyone, especially Daniel, who still wants to do right for all involved.

It’s truly regrettable when others suffer misfortunes, especially those we care about. And many of us genuinely want to step in to help. But how much of ourselves should we be willing to give? That’s particularly true when requests for assistance are so great that they can start to stretch our own resources thin. Is it realistic to think that we should blindly abide by the plea of “Give until it hurts”? Or should we simply turn our backs if the appeals are too onerous? Or is some kind of middle ground compromise in order?

These are not easy questions by any means. Most of us certainly don’t want to appear unkind or uncaring, but what if fulfilling a request at any cost would result in healthy boundaries being violated? Then what?

This is when we need to turn to our beliefs, for they will guide us about what we should do. They’ll also help to shape the results we attain as the end products of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we draw upon these resources in manifesting the reality we experience.

However, discerning the precise nature of those beliefs may not always be easy, particularly if there are seemingly conflicting notions involved. Wanting to do good and being able to do good can easily be at odds with one another, making it difficult to arrive at a decision on how to proceed, let alone a workable solution.

A trio of unlikely Samaritans, funeral home worker Mary Sullivan (Niamh Algar, right), autistic teen Louis Murphy (Samuel Bottomley, left) and lawyer Daniel Murphy (Michiel Huisman, rear, hidden from view), seek to deliver the corpse of a deceased elderly gentleman (in an eco-friendly biodegradable casket no less) to its final resting place in the endearing comedy-drama, “The Last Right.” Photo courtesy of Deadpan Pictures.

It’s at times like this when we must make a deep dive into our hearts to examine the nature of our beliefs and authentic selves. Getting real with ourselves can help us decide what to do when having to address thorny questions like those presented here. Daniel, for example, knows he must do right by Louis and his deceased mother, and he doesn’t hesitate to follow through. But does he owe the same obligation to a stranger he just met on a plane, especially one who tricked him without his awareness or consent? Furthermore, as their road trip progresses and Daniel sees how much of a handful his brother can be, need he selflessly bend to all of Louis’s unusual and troublesome requests, even though he knows his challenged sibling can’t help himself? What’s more, is the act of being a helping hand worth placing oneself in potentially serious jeopardy with the law and international authorities, all for the sake of being a good sport?

Some would say that, in making appraisals of situations like these, we should examine what they mean for us, as well as those being helped. For example, is willingly taking on a huge responsibility in exchange for the good karma points we’ll supposedly earn for it a sufficient enough (or noble enough) reason for doing so, especially if it could wipe the slate clean of past failings? Will the payoff of such an undertaking end up benefitting both parties? Or will there be some kind of “backlash” associated with an endeavor that could possibly be seen as essentially self-serving?

From the foregoing, it would seem as though there are no easy answers, and that’s likely an accurate assessment. For what it’s worth, the outcome in each case is likely to be closely tied to our individual beliefs. If we take on a task because we believe it’s the right thing to do, all other considerations aside, we’ll probably achieve a satisfying result for everyone involved. At the same time, if we proceed with a venture in which all manner of ancillary concerns are attached, those qualifying conditions are sure to have an impact in the end, given that all of the factors contributing to such scenarios have their origins in beliefs that contribute to the ultimate manifestation. In those cases, the results may be satisfying, or not, or somewhere in between. This is why understanding the precise nature of our beliefs going in to such circumstances is so vitally important, both for those we’re trying to help and for ourselves as well.

The Irish landscape provides a beautiful backdrop for the road trip misadventures of lawyer Daniel Murphy (Michiel Huisman) in writer-director Aiofe Crehan’s debut feature, “The Last Right.” Photo courtesy of Deadpan Pictures.

These, of course, are the considerations Daniel must address, and only he can determine what is right in the end. And this, interestingly enough, ties in to the film’s title, a fitting play on words related to what we typically think of as “the last rite.” Will Daniel do “right” when it comes to Padraig’s “last rite”? And how will it result for him if he succeeds at this? Of course, Daniel is presented with other opportunities to do right in this film, too, and viewers can’t help but wonder if he’ll pass the tests in those instances as well. Taken together, then, these challenges serve up a significant life lesson for the career-driven lawyer, providing him with the means to take a fresh new look at his life and to help him determine where his future is headed. Will he continue along the path he’s been on, or will it change the course of his destiny? One never knows where one may end up if it weren’t for scenarios that provide us with a chance to take a look at who we are, what we want and where we’re going. Indeed, seeming tragedies can transform us in ways we weren’t expecting but from which we – and others – can benefit tremendously.

The road trip format of this film is particularly helpful in examining circumstances like these. Journeys nearly always equate to exercises in evolution, showing how individuals and their qualities change over time and in relation to the conditions they face. They can also prove valuable in helping us to discover ourselves, to uncover and liberate aspects of our being that we didn’t know were present within us, bringing them to the surface and enabling their outward expression. In the process, the appearance of these traits and the underlying beliefs that brought them into being can shed light on how we handle the conditions around us, allowing us to blossom in ways we may have never imagined. The value in this is incalculable, especially when it comes to being of value to others. Daniel may not have grasped this idea when he boarded his plane to Ireland, but he certainly seems to have developed a new appreciation for it during the course of his Emerald Isle odyssey, unexpected though it may have been.

Twists of fate can take us down some intriguing roads, some of which can be challenging to maneuver, but others of which can lead us to some delightful, fulfilling and uplifting surprises. Writer-director Aiofe Crehan’s debut feature does just that. This sweet and touching affair combines moments of madcap humor and affecting drama (though, given the irreverent subject matter, it really could have used a little more of the former and a little less of the latter, its heartstring-tugging message notwithstanding), making for an endearing, beautifully filmed watch with homages to such offerings as director Barry Levinson’s “Rain Man” (1988) and filmmaker Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska” (2013). Admittedly, there are some sequences that sag like hammocks and that would have benefitted from swifter pacing, more in the tradition of classic screwball comedies. That aside, however, those looking for a pleasant, warm, fuzzy movie experience may want to give this one a look. The film’s original release was delayed by the COVID pandemic, but it is now available for streaming online and on the Showtime cable TV network.

Being asked to give of ourselves – even to an extreme degree – can be a life-changing experience, despite the frustrations we may undergo in the process. Such scenarios help us to realize that there’s more to our existence than just ourselves, expanding our horizons about what matters in life. We’re likely to come out of these experiences as better, more humane individuals, beings who appreciate the value of living and the dignity in dying – and how to properly respond to both.

Copyright © 2021, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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