It has not been lost on the Quinn brothers -- actor Aidan, cinematographer Declan, and writer-director Paul -- that in old Gaelic culture, the tribal bard (or storyteller) was held in the highest esteem. The Quinns want to be Irish storytellers too, and to that end they have loaded up This Is My Father, their first movie collaboration, with everything that seems remotely Irish or Irish-inflected.
They give us an old woman in Chicago struck dumb by a stroke. They give us an unhappy American schoolteacher (James Caan) who returns to the Old Sod in search of his mysterious roots. Their other hero (Aidan Quinn), the unhappy schoolteacher's long-lost father (who is seen in elaborate flashbacks), is a penniless orphan who has been taken in by good-hearted dirt farmers. Their heroine (Moya Farrelly), the schoolteacher's mother, is a free-spirited colleen who flouts local convention. Her mother, the Widow Flynn (Gina Moxley), is an embittered drunk. There are enough tyrannical priests, cruel village gossips, and colorful fortune-tellers to stock three or four Irish movies, and the love affair at the heart of this one is drenched in the most familiar Irishisms of all -- sexual repression and romantic tragedy.
Did we mention the Curse of Katie Madigan? This bit of evil causes the cursee to trip over furniture and slice up the odd finger while peeling potatoes. Any Irish storyteller worth his blarney, after all, should be able to come up with a decent curse and then maintain its hold through several generations.
In other hands, This Is My Father might have been a welcome antidote to the relentless Irish charm of The Secret of Roan Inish or Waking Ned Devine, both of which come off like extended TV spots for the Irish Tourist Board. But this unwieldy movie clunks along in a perpetual state of gloom while Paul Quinn, a theater director by trade, works overtime at the Irish cliché machine.
Brother Aidan, the star of Avalon and Legends of the Fall, does his best in the role of Kieran O'Day, the downtrodden "poorhouse bastard" who, in 1939, has the nerve to fall in love with pretty, middle-class Fiona Flynn (Farrelly). Hardworking Kieran slaves in the field and eats his simple dinner by firelight. Angry Kieran punches out a pair of rude twins at a country dance. Lovesick Kieran mopes picturesquely and leaves posies for his lady love beneath their secret "gift tree." Tragic Kieran, in the end, does what he must.
Clearly inspired by family feeling, Aidan Quinn puts in a strong, subtly shaded performance. So does the plucky newcomer Farrelly, who plays the girl Kieran O'Day loves. Unfortunately, Paul Quinn has supplied her with some of the lamest lines of dialogue this side of Sidney Sheldon. When a dashing Yank aviator (John Cusack) just happens to drop in when the lovers are walking on the beach, Fiona inquires of him: "Is it true there are buildings in America that touch the sky? "Yes," he answers. "They're called skyscrapers." Soon enough, Fiona will see for herself the buildings that touch the sky, but not before she has to deliver this message to her lover man: "Meet me at the gift tree at 5 a.m. If you're not there, I'll go off to the convent."
In This Is My Father, no one is immune from such verbal indignities. Poor James Caan, whose Kieran Johnson hauls his unruly teenage nephew Jack (Jacob Tierney) along with him on his journey of discovery, is required to kneel at his long-dead father's grave and say: "I'm sorry the world was so harsh to you. I wish it wasn't." In the face of Paul Quinn's literary assault, James Joyce and Sean O'Faolain are safe from harm.
Not so the romance of Kieran and Fiona. As Kieran Jr. learns, Mom and Dad had a pretty hard time of it back in 1939. Between the terrorism of Mother Church and the Curse of Katie Madigan, they're doomed to wind up victims of prefab Irish tragedy. Unfortunately, so are we.
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