Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel

THIS IS MY FATHER (US/Ireland, 1999) **1/4

Written & directed by Paul Quinn. Photography, Declan Quinn. Editing, Glen Berman. Production design, Frank Conway. Music, Donal Lunny. Cast: James Caan (Kieran Johnson), Aidan Quinn, (Kieran O'Day), Moya Farrelly (Fiona Flynn), Colm Meany (Seamus Kearney), Moira Deady (Seamus's mother), Gina Moxley (Fiona's mother), Stephen Rea (Father Mooney), John Cusack (the flying reporter), Brendan Gleeson (Officer Jim), et al. A Sony Classics release. 120 min. R (for a li'l bit of sex)

A family picture, though not in the usual sense, since it is about the darker side of families. It is the fruit of three cooperating brothers from Chicago: first-time writer-director Paul; actor Aidan ; cinematographer Declan. They were also the executive co-producers. And if you look at the credits with a lynx-eye you may note that their sister Marian has a tiny role. No sibling rivalry here.

I read that Paul "briefly attended the University of  Illinois , where he studied film and writing," but soon quit to travel around Europe. He lived in Ireland for six months. Back in Chicago, he formed (with Jeremy Piven and John Cusack) a theater company.

Declan went to Chicago's Columbia College, lived and worked for years in Ireland. Returning to the USA he photographed several films: the much neglected The Ballad of Little Jo, Leaving Las Vegas, Kama Sutra, Louis Malle's last movie, Vanya on 42nd Street, and others.

This Is My Father is a curious mix of professional production, a heartfelt subject with good intentions, gauche development and continuity, and rather muddled relationships. It does have a cast of performers who are on my list of very good as well as most likable thespians.

James Caan, whose career has been sadly spotty since about the 1980s, opens the movie as Kieran Johnson --a present-day high school History teacher in Aurora, Illinois-- in a classroom  sequence which is economical and right on target. He is a disabused professional among too many who-gives-a-damn students whose future, he tells them without mincing words, is unpromising.

His home life is not uplifting either.  His very old, widowed mother, Fiona, is totally incapacitated by a stroke. Living with them is Betty, his divorced sister Betty, and her  rebellious teenage boy Jack who's been expelled from school. Kieran himself, the stepson of Fiona's late husband, was told that his birth father was a French sailor.

The discovery of a fading photo of Fiona and a stranger, whose love-message as well as a book of poems were signed "Kieran," incite the schoolteacher to find out about his origins.  Since it is summer-vacation time, he takes off for Ireland, with his nephew Jack.

The search leads to a small Irish village. Kieran learns nothing from the close-mouthed locals.  But then, at their bed-and-breakfast, run by Seamus and his aged mother (tinkers who have settled down), the old lady, first by having her "palm crossed with gold," then gratis, tells the Irish-American the story of star-crossed lovers Fiona and farmer  Kieran O'Day (Aidan Quinn).

That sad, beautiful tale takes place in 1939. Fiona is 17, lovely, independent, spirited. Kieran is several years older. The girl has been sent home by the nuns of her school. Home means  Mother, whom all call "the widow Flynn" and who is the richest person in the village, owns it sole automobile, has a terrible character, is authoritarian, and a lush to boot.

Kieran lives with, and works for his foster parents ,tenant farmers for the widow. His lowly origins make him what we'd called today "disrespected" by the narrow-minded majority of villagers.

The Fiona-Kieran relationship is revealed to us and to the Chicago Kieran in successive episodes, with the time frames alternating between 1939 and the present. I will not reveal the plot's evolution here. No doubt it holds one's attention. Yet that attention is needlessly distracted by the film's structure, certain details and the lack of others, so that the story proper becomes slow.

For one thing, relationships can be muddled. Certain characters' nature or backgrounds (e.g. the widow Flynn's) have to be inferred.  What makes her so nasty? There are gratuitous sections or portrayals. There's an unexplained store-keeper who covets the widow. Landlord Colm Meany starts out with small but  unmistakable gay mannerisms, but soon these get dropped.  In a silly episode, Yank photo-reporter John Cusack who's just learned how to fly, drops in out of the sky, close to the couple that's stranded at , the beach by a malfunction of the widow's car. A hyperkinetic fellow, the journalist  wants to play American football right away, and does.  He also fixes the car. Later he and his tiny plane are gone. If this was meant to be semi-comic relief, or to underline American vigor, or else a kind of childishness, it was a misguided, jarring interlude.

The village priest, a major figure, is played by Stephen Rae as meddling, autocratic, fanatically prejudiced, fire and brimstone-preaching, and clearly lecherous. Is this going to extremes necessary? The same question applies to the presence of young Jack who is quite nice and makes friends with two giggly schoolgirls. But the  youth scenes, though pleasant are extraneous to the plot.

Harder to swallow --and found in many a movie--is unfounded omniscience. The old woman who relates the past (1939)  knows too many details and specifics which she could not possibly have witnessed. She's like the eye of God --which counters the good photography that has nary a close-up (at most medium close-ups) and uses medium and long shots which cleverly distance us.

All the performers are fine, in spite of the sketchiness of most roles. Good as well as strong is the depiction of the village as a suffocating place. As someone says "in small villages a small difference makes a big suspicion."

There have been thousands of Irish or Irish-American roles in cinema. There have been   quite a few Irish-themed movies, whether made in Hollywood, the U.K., and now in Ireland too. But how many of them do American audiences know or remember?

Several of those films were political dramas, such as the grim classics The Informer (1935) and Odd Man Out (1947). Most of the modern ones deal with Northern Ireland: Cal (84), Hidden Agenda (90), In the Name of the Father (93). There have been socially conscious items, some sad, others upbeat, others mixed: Ryan's Daughter (70), The Field (90),  The Commitments (91), The Playboys (92) (with Aidan Quinn), Raining Stones (93), The General (98, starring Brendan Gleeson as the real-life gangster) ). There have been few outright romances, like Circle of Friends (95); or  comedies, like the warm, realistically colorful The Snapper (93, starring Colm Meany); and probably just one major poetic legend, The Secret of  Roan Inish (95). Yet the one title that would be most familiar to most viewers would be John Ford's picturesque The Quiet Man (52, starring John Wayne).

This is My Father joins the group of grim Irish-centered movies, and, whatever its weaknesses, deserves praise for its honest ,non-commercial avoidance of picturesque or cliched or true or false Irishisms. It may not be a film after the Irish Travel Bureau's heart, but then this is its principal orginality.

The Irish Republic and Ulster cannot compete with the multitude of genre movies, such as Westerns, yet the  overwhelming majority of the above titles are gems.  In any case, comparisons would be pointless. It's like the elephant mocking the mouse "Look at the size of me, and look at the size of you.""Yeah" retorts the mouse "...but I've been sick!"

Copyright © Edwin Jahiel

Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel