Circle of Friends
directed by Pat O'Connor
(Buena Vista, 1995)

I approached the film with a bit of wary skepticism. After all, this Irish coming-of-age story starred American and English actors (as Irish characters, mind you), and I feared Hollywood's influence. In this case, I shouldn't have worried; U.S. native Chris O'Donnell and London-born Minnie Driver are up to the challenge.

Driver is Bernadette "Benny" Hogan, the ugly duckling (she gained 30 pounds for the role) of a trio of young Catholic girls straddling both their old small-town Irish life and the excitement of attending university in Dublin. There she meets college rugby idol Jack Foley (O'Donnell) and falls into a deep infatuation while attending lectures on sexual mores in primitive cultures -- shocking for the late 1950s setting of the film.

Her friends have their own ideas. The shy orphan Eve (Geraldine O'Rawe) sets her sights on mild-mannered Aidan (Aidan Gillen) and quietly sets about fixing up her inherited cottage while preparing a nest for her man. But outgoing Nan (Saffron Burrows) prefers older, wealthier men, and she woos the cold and rich Protestant bachelor Simon Westward (Colin Firth). Meanwhile, Benny's parents try to arrange a romance for her with Sean Walsh (Alan Cumming), an oily, obsequious twit employed in her father's haberdashery.

Of course, it would be a dull movie if the course of true love progressed smoothly. Benny is betrayed by one friend while the other seethes on her behalf. She wins at love, but loses. And additional complications set in along the way to keep her off-balance and away from the center of the action. And still, there are doses of good Irish humor to keep you grinning.

There is nothing terribly unique or startling about the plot, but the success of Circle of Friends lies in its strong characters, good dialogue and believeable plot. Also, these Irish youngsters are smart in a realistic way, which beats the heck out of the typical Hollywood film where young people are either brilliantly superior to the adults around them or are depressingly idiotic. It's refreshing.

[ by Tom Knapp ]
Rambles: 20 August 2001

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