Americans have been conditioned to draw the same few mental pictures whenever conversation turns to Ireland. These include the fantasy applications of leprechauns, four-leaf clovers and Lucky Charms cereal. In the real world, conversely, the country’s enduring image remains violence-torn Belfast.
As a focus of movies, Ireland has seen the emphasis move from the former (“Darby O’Gill”) to the latter (“In the Name of the Father,” “The Crying Game”).
Neither of these constructs, in and of itself, tells the whole of Irish life. There is room, too, for an old-fashioned, coming-of-age love story involving the simple question of when, or if, the lovers in question will have sex.
And that movie is “Circle of Friends.”
The work of a director, Pat O’Connor, who has had a hand in the IRA-themed school of Irish filmmaking (“Cal”), “Circle of Friends” could have been set anyplace. That’s especially so since the film’s only bona-fide star, Chris O’Donnell, is an American.
But based on a 1991 novel by Maeve Binchy (adapted for the screen by Andrew Davies), the film fits into its setting as smoothly as O’Donnell affects his accent: Both work best by not belaboring the obvious.
The protagonists are a trio of girls who, during the 1940s and ‘50s, grow up in a small village outside Dublin. Accepted at university, the young women - solid Benny (Minnie Driver), beautiful Nan (Saffron Burrows) and self-reliant Eve (Geraldine O’Rawe) - continue the three-way friendship they first formed as girls.
The inherent differences in the women, and the effect those differences have on their relationship, is one of the themes the film explores. But there are others, too. One is the question of women and their roles in conservative 1957. Another involves the presence of boys and, in the words of one professor, the curious mating rituals of Irish society.
Standing over everything, however, is that omnipresent entity, the Catholic church. Fibbing to mom and dad is one thing; lying at confession is something else entirely. Having to deal with the sad results of careless sex is too horrid to even consider.
For Benny, the good girl, the allure of sex is wrapped up in the campus stud Jack (O’Donnell). The type that typically would be drawn to Nan, Jack instead is attracted to the overweight-but-pretty village girl (she refers to herself as a “rhinocerous”) who boasts a quick wit and clear mind.
The specifics of the plot are the film’s leastinteresting aspect. They involve the cabin that orphan Eve inherits, the romance that Nan pursues with a member of the local gentry (Colin Firth) and how that romance eventually affects Benny and Jack.
There’s also a subplot involving a lizard-like clerk (Alan Cummings) who works for Benny’s father and who harbors a not-so-secret lust for the poor man’s buxom daughter.
Much of what occurs is merely McGuffin, a means of adding melodrama to the question of whether Benny and Jack will, finally, end up together. As such, it is surface stuff, frosting that covers the real issues of loyalty and perseverance that challenge anyone in love.
Even so, the acting that O’Connor elicits from his cast overcomes even this basic fault. Driver is especially good as the kind of woman who challenges anyone who would love her; to know her is to know yourself at the same time, both the good and bad parts. And such love isn’t for faint hearts.
The others fit their parts equally well. Burrows has the natural naivete of the bornbeautiful, O’Rawe the hard-edged independence of the born-alone and O’Donnell the modesty of the born-fortunate.
When O’Connor dwells on their individual characters, warts and all, “Circle of Friends” becomes an Irish clique well worth joining.
Leprechauns or no.
xxxx 1. “Circle of Friends” *** Location: Newport cinemas Cast: Directed by Pat O’Connor, starring Minnie Driver, Geraldine O’Rawe, Saffron Burrows, Alan Cummings and Colin Firth Running time: 1:44 Rating: PG-13
2. OTHER VIEWS Here’s what other critics say about “Circle of Friends:” Bob Strauss/Los Angeles Daily News: “Circle of Friends” is ultimately about such minor goings-on that all the fresh-faced blarney and kooky Catholic guilt in the world could not make it engrossing. Let’s hope it launches some of its fine, young British actors - especially the droll Cumming and gorgeous Driver, who both underwent chameleonlike physical transformations for this film - into more intriguing projects. Henry Sheehan/Orange County Register: Savvy romance connoisseurs will be hip to “Circle of Friends’s” plot path from the first reel or so. But that knowledge does remarkably little harm to this pleasant confection of personality, landscape and period love story.