This is a tragic tale of the troubled Ireland, specifically how the troubles ruined one family. It begins shortly after WW I at Kilneagh, the estate belonging to the Quintons. In this dream of aristocratic life, Mr. Quinton (Michael Kitchen), his wife, Evie (Julie Christie), and their
three beautiful children enjoy all the benefits of the landed gentry. The idyll is shattered when a worker's body is found hanging from a tree, his tongue cut out. He was rumored to have been an informer to the Black and Tan, the despised paramilitary force the British have sent to quell Irish
rebellion. An orgy of revenge is then released upon the Quintons by the Black and Tans. Led by one Sgt. Rudkin (Neal Dudgeon), they set fire to the house one night and shoot Quinton, as well as a couple of unfortunate witnesses. Young Willie Quinton (Sean T. McClory) survives, but his sisters
perish in the flames and his mother will never be the same. Years pass with Evie becoming a hopeless alcoholic, tended to by their faithful servant Josephine (Niamh Cusack). A cousin, Marianne (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) comes to visit, and she and Willie (now played by Iain Glen) fall in love.
After Marianne departs, Evie kills herself and Willie, unable to bear the guilt and fury over the past any longer, seeks out Rudkin and kills him. Meanwhile, Marianne discovers she is pregnant and fruitlessly tries to discover Willie's whereabouts. She is eventually taken in at Kilneagh by
Willie's aunts. Later, her daughter, Imelda, is born. Willie is eventually reunited with his wife and child, but by then, the girl, haunted by all that has gone before, is hopelessly mad.
Pat O'Connor's film follows William Trevor's acclaimed book closely, and is at its best in the first half as it lovingly creates the atmosphere at Kilneagh before "the troubles." After the unfortunate STARS AND BARS and JANUARY MAN, O'Connor is back on more congenial territory, and the strong
sense of period he showed in A MONTH IN THE COUNTRY again is in evidence. He is immensely abetted by the glowing work of his camera and design teams, as well as the floridly symphonic score by Hans Zimmer. The nostalgic grandeur of the early scenes makes the destruction of this life all the more
heart-breaking. The performances in this section are especially good: Kitchen is the perfect gallant country squire, somewhat addled, but fiercely proud of all he owns, and McClory is a cherubic delight as young Willie. O'Connor stages the fire massacre magnificently, showing it through Willie's
eyes, making the horror of it excruciating. It is in the second half that the film tails off, lacking the romantically Gothic aura of dashed hopes and ruined lives that permeated such films as William Wyler's WUTHERING HEIGHTS, Orson Welles' THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, or John Huston's THE DEAD.
The political background is too sketchy and events are somewhat confusing. The numerous employees of Kilneagh are insufficiently delineated and therefore lack the resonance their recurring mention and presence would deem. Iain Glen is too pallidly the sufferer to make the grown Willie an
effectively stirring hero. Mastrantonio also seems too tentative a presence. Her performance is too similarly scaled to the more lyrical aspects of Julie Christie's; there's not enough contrast, and it's hard to believe she could possess the forceful will to have a child out of wedlock and trail
all over the British Isles in search of its father. Catherine McFadden is darkly lovely as Imelda, but the madness theme is unconvincing.
Christie is a major reason to see this flawed film. It's about time to claim her as a rarity: one of the screen's great, heart-stopping beauties, who is, as well, a fine actress. She's a radiant embodiment of the Edwardian classical ideal in the early sequences and rivetingly unsparing of herself
later on. Her chilling performance is a delicate, uncanny mixture of Vivien Leigh and Una O'Connor. (Violence, adult situations, substance abuse.)
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