Directed by Pat O'Connor
Starring Chriss O' Donnel and Minnie
Hollywood makes two kinds of Ireland movies--the working class urban fantasy and the fey rural fantasy. "Circle of Friends," the latest Irish presence in American theaters, divides its time between Dublin and the countryside, but the movie could be set in Poughkeepsie as far as the plot is concerned; in this formulaic love-story, the setting doesn't intrude for a moment on the predicatable progress of the romance.
It is the late 1950s, and Benny (really Bernadette) Hogan (Minnie Driver), a plain, awkward girl from a small village, is ripe for a coming-of-age experience. Going off to college with her lifelong friends Nan (Saffron Burrows) and Eve (Geraldine O'Rawe) is just the thing. On the very first day, she meets Jack Foley (Chris O'Donnell), who enters with a caress from the camera that practically screams "love interest." Sure enough, Jack falls for Benny, preferring her to the beautiful but cold Nan and the charming, impish Eve. Benny's own characteristic--in this movie, nobody has more than one--is her winning levelheadedness; as Jack tells her, "You are solid, aren't you."
All is not well, however, since Benny must fight for her new-found love and sexual awakening against a trio of obstacles--her conservative parents, the Catholic Church, and Sean Walsh (Alan Cumming), the creepy suitor who is weaselling his way into her parents' affections. Sean is a lovable stereotype, whose lascivious lipsmacking and overall villainy are genuinely funny (at the film's advance screening, his every entrance was greeted by a good-natured hiss from the audience).
The portrayal of Church and its influence on Benny, however, is laughably cliched. From the scolding sermon ("Will your body be a garden of Jesus or a vessel of sin?) to the stock confessional scene ("Father, I have had impure thoughts"), the Church seems to be just about as much of an obstacle to these girls' sexuality as Dear Abbey would be to their American contemporaries.
This agreeable conflict between healthy sexuality and its not-too-for-bidding opponents occupies the first hour of the film, occasioning some fetchingly naive comments like Benny's description of sex: "It would be like someone was putting his finger up your nose." Jack, too has demons to overcome; a medical student by his father's command, he faints at the sight of blood (yes, really).
Things only heat up in the second half, when Nan's calculated attempt to win the hand and fortune of a local Protestant aristocrat goes awry, starting a chain of events that ultimately jeopardizes Benny and Jack's ralationship. At the same time, the death of Benny's father gives Sean a new opportunity to practice his dastardly deeds, which eventually include voyeurism, embezzling, and (almost) rape. In the end, needless to say, everyone who deserves a partner ends up with one and the evildoers, never really menacing, are dispatched harmlessly.
As the plot grinds on to its telegraphed conclusion, there are some genuine amusements. Eve and her boyfriend Aidan are by far the most appealing characters; their conversation is witty and affectionate, far more so than Jack and Benny's, and their sexual explorations are endearingly funny. Sean is the classic villain who we love to hate, and Alan Cumming's comic routine never wears thin.
The Irish setting, however, which could have redeemed the trite storyline, is sorely underused. A few external shots of Trinity Colleges and a model Irish village are the only things that locate us in Ireland. In many ways the protagonists are American teenagers, going to see On the Waterfront and listening to Buddy Holly impersonators. Only the characters' naivete could prevent their being transposed to the United States.
Popular comedies are always light, but "Circle of Friends" practically floats away. You walk out feeling that you have seen this movie before. If you're looking for a genuinely Irish film experience, pick up a pint of Guinness and rent "The Quiet Man."