Irene’s Ghost

Director: Iain Cunningham

Words – Rhiannon Topham

Irene’s Ghost is one of those films that leaves you feeling like a more compassionate person. In this visceral tale of discovery and closure, director Iain Cunningham endeavours to find the truth about the mysterious death of his mother, Irene, when he was just three years old.

Very much rooted in his childhood community in Nuneaton, Cunningham uses photographs to piece together a collective memory of his ‘quiet and artistic’ mum, encountering old friends and hitherto unacquainted family members to uncover the titular enigma’s early life and friendships, her courtship and domestic life with Cunningham’s dad, as well as the distinctly parochial aspects of her life, such as her employment in a hosiery factory.

Irene was, by all accounts, a normal person. But her sudden death, and the emotionally fraught build up to it, has always been off limits to Iain and his family — it was an unspoken rule that nobody mention Irene. By mixing animation with filmed footage, Cunningham manages to create a unique and delicate portrait of his mum which embraces the fantastical delusions of a young bereaved boy (he imagines her as the moon or as the wind blowing doors open around the house) while also addressing the historical reality of Irene’s life and death.

Cunningham was inspired to make a documentary about his mum after the birth of his daughter, and it was musings about how losing a parent at such a young age could impact a child for the rest of their life. After his father remarried, Cunningham was raised by his step-mum and the mystery shrouding his birth mother provoked an emotional disconnect — he couldn’t initially call her ‘mum’, she was just Irene, who he didn’t even see a photograph of until he was 18.

Where Irene’s Ghost really strikes a chord, though, is the way Cunningham approaches his dad; hesitantly at first, but then as the investigation progresses both men become more open with one another and the topic of Irene becomes notably less tense. Cunningham doesn’t dictate what the viewer should think about this or how they should perceive the story, but rather presents a number of questions about familial relationships, our access to and ownership of memories, and changing perceptions towards mental health issues.


See our interview with director Iain Cunningham >here<.