Love with an Irish Accent
I don’t think there’s such a thing as a happy love story in all of Irish literature. Ballads always end with the girl throwing herself in the river now that her beloved has married someone else or the lonely old bachelor discovering that the man he saw his girl with at the ball twenty years before was actually her brother. Something about the Irish disposition just seems to necessitate a dollop — or more — of tragedy mixed in with the romance. (Probably it’s the fear of burning in hell if one enjoys oneself too much.) This Is My Father and The Matchmaker, while two very different films, nevertheless have this contradictory Irish attitude in common.
Sins of the father
One of the least clichéd films set in Ireland that I’ve seen in quite a while, This Is My Father is a labor of love from the Quinn brothers. Aidan the actor we all know, from films like Practical Magic and Michael Collins; joining him is award-winning cinematographer Declan — who photographed Leaving Las Vegas and Kama Sutra, among others — and writer and first-time director Paul (all three also produced). They and their wonderful cast have created a quiet, beautiful film, filled with nuanced characters, about lost love, lost family, and the societal repression and bitterness that ensured that the Irish diaspora lasted well beyond the end of the famine.
Kieran Johnson (James Caan, from The Godfather), a Chicago schoolteacher, never knew his father, and his mother never spoke of him. So he’s excited to uncover an old book in his mother’s house, inscribed to his mother with love from a “Kieran,” along with an old photo of his mother as a girl with a man he suspects may be his father. But mom (Françoise Graton) is bedridden after a stroke, and has lost her ability to speak, and perhaps even to understand what’s said to her — Kieran can get no information out of her. So Kieran and his nephew Jack (Jacob Tierney) fly over to the west of Ireland, to his mother’s hometown, to dig up the past.
The Quinns are obviously not of the breed of Irish-Americans who romanticize the old country as a land of quaint pubs and blarney-spouting characters. This Is My Father recognizes that rural Ireland is still, in many ways, more like a Third World country than a part of Western Europe. Huge power-plant stacks loom outside the window of the dingy bed & breakfast Kieran and Jack land in (its yard is filled with clucking chickens, abandoned toilet fixtures, and a broken-down RV). The place is run by the simultaneously amusing and sad Seamus Kearney (Colm Meaney, from Con Air), flaming homosexual and mama’s boy, and his mother, Mrs. Kearney (Moira Deady), a settled Traveler — one of the Irish gypsy nomads also derogatorily called Tinkers — who’s also a fortune teller and historian of local lore. She happens to know the story of Kieran’s parents, and shares it with him.
Flashback to 1939. Again, the Quinns do not insult us with hackneyed convention. Rural County Galway is not a particularly pleasant place — “nothing but rocks and dung beasts,” according to 17-year-old Fiona Flynn (Moya Farrelly), Kieran’s mother. Relatively sophisticated and a luscious beauty, she’s been educated in the city of Galway and shockingly wears lipstick. At a dance, in a red dress, she’s a “hussy” “too high and mighty to sit with us,” the other girls sniff. Rumors fly about her virtue. And then there’s Kieran O’Day (Aidan Quinn), an orphan taken in as a child by farmers, always an outsider, a gauche, awkward man of the land. As Mrs. Kearney explains to Caan’s Kieran, “in a small village, a little difference can cause great suspicion.”
Fiona and Kieran’s relationship is doomed — even they recognize that. He’s a farmer, and that’s all he’ll ever be, and she hates the country and dreams of living in a skyscraper in America. He’s twice her age and capable of being scared by a priest who tells Kieran he’s endangering Fiona’s immortal soul by fooling around with her; Fiona is a free spirit who doesn’t give a fig what people think of her. Worst of all is the opposition of Fiona’s mother, “the widow Flynn,” Mary (Gina Moxley) — Kieran’s adoptive parents are tenants on Flynn property, and Mary believes Kieran is only after Fiona for the land that will one day be hers.
Quinn is at his best as Kieran — hunched in on himself and soft-spoken, he’s spot on as an Irish farmer. Newcomer Farrelly is wonderful as the young Fiona, as is Moxley as her mother, all icy demeanor and pinched face. Not wasted in parts that are essentially cameos are Stephen Rea (The Butcher Boy) as a sex-obsessed priest running an inquisition for sinners, Brendan Gleeson (I Went Down) as a local policeman, and John Cusack (The Thin Red Line) as the Life magazine photographer who takes the fateful photo of Fiona and Kieran. Also notable is the fresh, heartfelt, evocative score by traditional musician Donal Lunny.
Despite its typically Irish tragic ending, This Is My Father is as much an American tale as an Irish one, thanks to the contemporary framing story. Kieran Johnson asks his history students in the beginning of the film to share the stories of their families in America, and he’s able to share his own story with them at the film’s end. In a land of immigrants, there’s a satisfaction to be had in knowing the history of one’s family and how one’s ancestors ended up in America. The Quinns get to have it both ways: Kieran’s learning of his parents’ sad tale ultimately offers him that peculiar American triumph of understanding the past.
This Is My Father is a film crafted with a lot of love and care, and it shows.
Matchmaker, matchmaker, don’t make me a match
The Matchmaker is a much lighter movie than This Is My Father, but it’s just as uniquely Irish in tone and setting. Wiseass instead of sappy, this is a romantic comedy for people who don’t like romantic comedies. It’s a bit more trite than This Is My Father but a lot more fun.
If ever there was the perfect anti-heroine for a romantic comedy, Janeane Garofalo (Clay Pigeons, Cop Land) is she. Snarky and cynical, her Marcy Tizard is an aide to Massachusetts Senator John McGlory (Jay O. Sanders). With days to go before the election, and McGlory slipping in the polls, Marcy is sent to Ireland, to the small town of Ballinagra, to dig up the senator’s relatives. “Like all those other American politicians coming over to secure the Irish vote,” snipes Sean Kelly (David O’Hara, who played the crazy Irishman in Braveheart), a snarky, cynical journalist. Naturally, Marcy and Sean are made for each other, though they can’t see it at first. (“Is being an idiot like being high all the time?” Marcy asks Sean at one point.)
Unfortunately for Marcy, she has arrived right in the middle of Ballinagra’s big matchmaking festival. The local matchmaker, Dermot O’Brien (the absolutely perfect Milo O’Shea, from The Butcher Boy), is certain he’ll have no problem finding Marcy a husband — “I’ll even charge you the widow rate, I’m that confident,” he says. Her protests that she’s not looking for a husband fall on saddened ears throughout the town.
Much of The Matchmaker‘s humor is of the fish-out-of-water variety — the big-city girl stuck in the small rural town frustrated with the slow pace and desperate to fax somebody — or amusing reversals of the stereotypical Irish friendliness (Marcy faces a couple cranky greetings along the lines of “another feckin’ Yank”). Lots of jokey references to John F. Kennedy finish with an unexpected comic payoff in the end.
The Matchmaker is an American film, but, in inevitable Irish fashion, all cannot end on an unrestrainedly happy note. A sad twist near the film’s finish gives this a little more weight than is typical of the genre.
The Matchmaker is a cute film for people who hate cute.
This Is My Father
viewed at a public multiplex screening
viewed at home on a small screen