A MAN OF NO IMPORTANCE (Ireland,1994) ** 3/4. Directed by Suri Krishnamma. Screenplay, Barry Devlin. Producer, Jonathan. Photography, Ashley Rowe. Production design, Jamie Leonard. Editing, David Freeman. Cast: Albert Finney, Brenda Fricker, Michael Gambon, Tara Fitzgerald, Rufus Sewell, et al. A Sony Classics release. 98 min. Rated R (delicate subject matter for some)
In the Oscars race, Albert Finney was always a bridesmaid, never a bride with his four nominations: for "Tom Jones," "Murder On The Orient Express," "The Dresser," and "Under The Volcano. "
Consistently superb in any role, Finney is a chameleon. Among others, as a working class hero "Saturday Night And Sunday Morning"; a bawdy picaro; the funny-fussy-bright detective Hercule Poirot; a maniacal old thespian;a boozing diplomat; a crypto-romantic husband ("Two for the Road"); a sentimental gangster ("Miller's Crossing"); and much else, even in some lesser films which his presence made worth watching.
The funny thing about Finney is that he is seldom thought of as belonging to the Pantheon of stars. This is because he has done one of the hardest things for any performer. He created terrific roles but not a Finney persona, unlike, say, a Cary Grant who invented "Cary Grant."
In "A Man of No Importance," Finney IS the movie. He plays Alfie, the conductor of a red double-decker bus in the Dublin of the early 1960s. Alfie is an original, an eccentric, yet he also embodies the poetry in life and the love of poetry that you find in many ordinary people, notably among the Irish.
Pleasant, warm, friendly and combining good manners and familiarity vis-a-vis his passengers, almost courtly, Alfie is what the title of Finney's first movie was, an entertainer. He regales the ticket-holders -- and some he forgets to check -- with recitations from his favorite author, Oscar Wilde. Also, as a planner of amateur theatricals, he is preparing a production of Wilde's risque play "Salome." He finds his leading lady when a charming first-time rider steps into the bus.
Up to now, the movie comes close to the "let's do a show" sub-genre, of which the most recent example I remember was the 1991, rather underrated "Stepping Out", with Liza Minnelli teaching tap-dancing to a motley bunch of amateurs.
Soon however," A Man..." changes gears, gently and without gnashing them. It gradually reveals that Alfie is gay, that he is in love with his young friend, the straight and unsuspecting bus-driver Robbie.
The surprise is double since it seems that Alfie himself was not aware of his homosexuality. I quote the film's director who said that upon first reading the script he was "... quite frankly, alarmed at the sheer sophistication in the writing. It told its story very naturally yet contained elements which were extremely unusual. I mean, the idea of a Dublin bus conductor reciting Oscar Wilde and involving his passengers is quite unique! Additionally, to tell the story of a middle-aged man going through a sexual awakening and coming to terms with the fact that he may be gay, without even knowing what that meant, is no mean achievement."
There are only mild clues before this revelation, as when Lily ( Brenda Fricker), Alfie's sister with whom he lives and for whom he prepares unwelcome "foreign" meals, says that their late father thought it strange for men to cook.
Another twin clue is the film's signature song, "Let's Do It" ("let's fall in love') by Cole Porter, a gay genius. Earta Kitt sings it magnificently on the soundtrack, and when she does not, the melody is very smoothly played by what the end credits identify as The London Filmworks Orchestra..
For the literati in the audience, there is Alfie's passion for Wilde and his calling Robbie "Bosie," the nickname used by Wilde for his lover Lord Alfred Douglas. By the same token, the planting of such hints does make sixtyish Alfie, an ignorant of sex, virgin in body and thought, something of a Procrustean improbability.
The unlikelihood is augmented later, when Alfie suddenly, momentarily and flamboyantly un-closets himself -- and in so doing discloses everything to his sister, friends and others.
Be it as it may, "A Man..." has its own brand of charm. If the better part of valor is discretion, the movie's wariness of sensationalism is part of its appeal. With rare exceptions, there is nothing blatant here. Alfie has no special mannerisms in speech or demeanor. In his relation with "Bosie" he never even touches him, not does he look at him longingly. The supporting cast is colorful but not too. The naive priest who lends the group space for their production is deftly but warmly mocked. The puritanism of Michael Gambon, as the butcher, friend and landlord of Alfie and Lily, does not jar. About as strong as anything is Lily's reaction when her brother offers to cook: "When I think where your hands have been!"
This first theatrical feature by Suri Krishnamma is a sweet movie that could use some tightening, editing down and at times a slightly clearer diction, although most of it is understandable, with Finney's accent sounding perfect to these foreign ears.
Once more, Finney makes a film recommendable. As a bonus, the little we see of Dublin will make many in the audience wish to go there to take in the whole place and meet its people. This, by the way, with "Circle of Friends," is one of two Irish films playing locally this week.