The Muck of the Irish

Now that the fledgling Irish film industry has gained a toehold, it seems intent on waxing native to a fault. These days, Ireland's most marketable cinematic exports bask in picturesque charm, scenic beauty, and boozy wit. It's an amalgam of the Emerald Isle's folk art, calculated to strike a sentimental chord among yearning American hearts across the ocean.

Which is not to say that pioneering, atmosphere-laden efforts such as My Left Foot, The Field, and Hear My Song have been conjured exclusively with foreign audiences in mind (though surely their makers are well aware that they'll sell more theater tickets in New York, Chicago, and Paris than in Dublin, Cork, or Kerry). Consequently, many Irish films have begun to look like tourist travelogue curios straight off the shelf at the Ould Sod Shop.

Gillies MacKinnon's The Playboys accommodates the new mood perfectly. Set in 1957, in a remote (and, yes, wholly picturesque) hamlet located on the northern border of the island republic, it provides all the vaunted Irish pluck, charm, and incipient tragedy international moviegoers have come to expect. It's not a bad movie, actually, but it trades on badly overworked themes.

The heroine is a feisty beauty named Tara Maguire (Robin Wright) who has offended local sensibilities - and Catholic mores - by giving birth to an illegitimate child, declining to identify the father, and refusing to settle into a postpartum marital arrangement to smooth society's ruffled feathers. Meanwhile, the run-down bachelors of tiny Redhills (the actual hometown of co-writer Shane Connaughton) have taken up a futile pursuit of lovely Tara, including the dour local police sergeant, Hegarty (Albert Finney), and a spoony farmboy who winds up shooting himself (possibly out of unrequited love). In either event, the village pariah has brought more trouble to town.

Cannily, Connaughton, and co-writer Kerry Crabbe also understand that no voluptuously green, impressionistically misty setting worth its peat moss can thrive without a half-dozen scowling busybodies, a sprinkling of shadowy IRA men, and a hypocritical parish priest (Alan Devlin), so they add these culture-mongering elements to the stewpot before even the first pint of Guinness has been downed at the pub. Between the smothering attentions of the sergeant and the imprecations of Father Malone ("Scandal is a contagion!" he spews), poor Tara has her hands full - of morons.

Enter the "Playboys" of the title, a ragtag troupe of itinerant actors whose repertoire ranges from burlesque to Shakespeare to chicken thievery, each enacted with what can only be described as terminal jauntiness. That wonderful, bent-nosed Irish character actor, Milo O'Shea, whose career coincidentally began in just such a troupe, puts a real charge into this film as the company's cheapskate impresario, Freddie Fitzgerald. Alas, we are asked to pay more attention to handsome jack-of-all-trades Aidan Quinn (late of Avalon and At Play in the Fields of the Lord). From first glimpse, we know his spirited Tom and the lady of the piece are destined to make music together. The priest and police be damned - we're kindred spirits. Dublin, here we come.

Of course, this is 1957, and the filmmakers take pains to show us the first TV antenna going up on the roof at McMahon's pub - a device foreshadowing the doom of theater companies like the Playboys and signaling a subtle but distinct change in ancient Irish morality. There's the rub: MacKinnon and company seem to have ingested Larry McMurtry's The Last Picture Show rather than O'Connor, Yeats, or Synge. It's an old complaint, but they might have given us more sense than surface.

As far as the acting goes, Finney steals the show. From Tom Jones to The Dresser to Under the Volcano, this extraordinary actor (Northern English, actually, not Irish) has always given evidence of his spectacular gifts, never more so than here. His brooding portrait of a frustrated, guilty, well-meaning constable gives The Playboys all the texture it needs to hold our interest. Finney's skill lets us ignore the pathetic spectacle of Wright and Quinn, two Yanks, impersonating young Irish lovers none too credibly. (Wright, who was in The Princess Bride and State of Grace, replaced another American, Annette Bening, who dropped out of the project - wisely - before filming began.)

By the time the Playboys get around to performing their own burlesque on Gone With the Wind (the original has been playing at the local movie house) and Sergeant Hegarty falls off the wagon (wrecking the show tent and kidnapping the baby), we've been pumped so full of homespun aphorisms, romantic ties, and rural countryside that we're quick and ready for anything, even a stint in Secaucus or Cleveland. At least in New Jersey and Ohio neither the soul of humankind nor the lilt of the mother tongue is cloyingly pretty, and the curio shops are not nearly so well-stocked. (Thank heaven.)

Directed by Gillies MacKinnon; written by Shane Connaughton and Kerry Crabbe. With Albert Finney, Aidan Quinn, and Robin Wright.



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