Shem The Penman deals with the actual and much fabled friendship of James Joyce and John McCormack. The world-renowned writer and the extraordinary tenor first met in 1904 when Joyce still had hopes of becoming a professional singer himself. They reconnected in Paris in the 1920’s and Joyce was to use his first hand knowledge of McCormack to create the character of Shaun the Post in his famously ‘unreadable’ final novel, Finnegans Wake. As Joyce struggled with the book, he portrayed himself in it as Shaun’s lowly twin brother, Shem.
Joyce’s twin obsessions, singing and literary experimentation, flow through the film as his and McCormack’s encounters are reimagined in a variety of early cinematic styles, interrupted by four short films-within-the-film charting the exploits of Shem and Shaun. As Joyce’s eyesight fails, the narrative is carried by a mix of archive recordings and imaginary radio broadcasts, giving us an emotional connection to an increasingly isolated Joyce.