Pity Sarah Collins (Sarah Bolger): she’s a single mother of two, one of whom has been struck mute ever since the murder of his father, her husband. She’s just barely scraping by on a miserable Belfast estate, the price of one chocolate bar dictating whether she can afford the week’s shopping or not. And absolutely everyone talks down to her: doctors, coppers, social workers, gangsters, even her own mother. You can feel Sarah’s very vitality being crushed from her yet, somehow, she keeps managing for the kids. Then Tito shows up. He’s a low-life who’s stolen a bag of drugs from the local crime kingpin, and wants to use Sarah’s flat as a stash until he can get them all sold. He’s never met her before, there’s no reason for him to be at her flat, so no-one will ever think to look for the drugs there. You have to give him credit, that’s a pretty clever plan. Sarah wants nothing to do with it despite how desperately she needs the 40% cut Tito offers her, but her objections are irrelevant to Tito, who forces her to go along with the plan anyway.
All of that takes place in a highly economic first act. Director Abner Pastoll and his principal actors are able to create memorable and multi-layered characters in the space of just a few lines or, particularly in Sarah’s case, a lingering wordless shot. It’s also clear that horrific violence is impending, but we’re never sure quite when or why it might erupt. From an already almost unbearably tense premise, the plot rattles off in a number of directions, piling up twists and shocking moments. Yet for all its slam-bang, blackly-comic gangster-movie violence, at heart A Good Woman is more interested in the character-driven social realism of a Ken Loach film.
It is the core of believability to Bolger’s strong, nuanced performance and Ronan Blaney’s smart script that allows the film to sustain itself through some of its later implausibilities. Pastoll’s talent as a director lifted his last feature, Road Games, beyond the well-worn tropes of its script, but here he demonstrates an intelligence and a maturity that that effort only hinted at.