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This is My Father

Review by Elias Savada
Posted 18 June 1999

  Written and Directed by Paul Quinn.

Starring Aidan Quinn, James Caan,
Stephen Rea, John Cusack, Moya Farrelly,
Jacob Tierney, Colm Meaney,
Donal Donnelly, and Brendan Gleeson.

Siblings Paul (first-time director/writer), Aidan (star), and Declan Quinn (cinematographer on Leaving Las Vegas and One True Thing) gather together as producers, spinning a cinematic tale in much the same way families wrap themselves in turkey, stuffing, and all the trimmings every November. But as many of us can attest every Thanksgiving, we often over-indulge, and This Is My Father feels somewhat bloated after telling an over-long sentimental ballad of love gained and lost. As much as I admired this small, nuanced picture, I did wish the filmmakers didn’t make me feel over-filled with lush Irish scenery and some simplified characters and scenes (including those featuring John Cusack as a grounded Chicago-based aviator/photographer in search of a good game of American football) that could have been easily trimmed.

The brothers Quinn tell a story steeped in family history, about one Kieran Johnson (James Caan), a widower and social vegetable zoning out in the History 101 class he teaches poorly in Aurora, Illinois, a working-class Chicago suburb. He returns to Ireland during spring break in search of his roots (i.e., the identity of his father -- mom’s never discussed him) and relief from a generations-old ancestral curse, although some artery-clogging breakfast meats could do worse damage than any mystical mumbo-jumbo placed on his ancestors 60 years earlier. Caan’s character spearheads the "modern" segment of This Is My Father, which acts as both a framing device and a contrived parallel (using Jack, Kieran’s troublesome and fatherless teenage nephew, played by Jacob Tierney) to the mid-1939 world of Kieran O’Day (Aidan Quinn), a hard-working, orphaned farm hand. As the film flashes back to strictly Catholic times when pre-marital sex was a direct ticket to Hell, the "poorhouse bastard" O’Day breaks his shell of shyness in wooing the heart of the dauntless beauty Fiona Flynn (Moya Farrelly), a fiery yet mature 17-year-old, despite the attempts of her mean-spirited, dispassionate, widowed mother (Gina Moxley). Efforts by the local clergy to rein in the raging hormones of the local youngsters are met with fire and brimstone sermons, including a short but fierce exhortation by a visiting puritanical preacher (third billed Stephen Rea, with a minute or two of screen time), perhaps earnest in his profession or merely in search of carnal self-titillation.

The medium that connects the past and the present, and by which the present day Kieran attempts to help his mother (Françoise Graton as the stroke-disabled "Old Fiona," seemingly unable to communicate with her family), is Mrs. Kearney (Moira Deady), a story-telling "traveler" -- an Irish gypsy/tinker -- now running a bed and breakfast with her effeminate and suspicious son (Colm Meaney) in the rural Flynn family homestead in County Galway.

The sad ending of the story recollected is apparently meant to mirror the discovery of passion in Flynn’s nephew for one of the local Irish lassies, but this portion is one of the biggest distractions in a film filled with plot contrivances and its own characters’ misconceptions that all too often lead to tragedy, despair, and remorse. Based on Caan’s ultimate discovery of his father’s fate, I suspect the most blaring story line oversight is the existence of Caan’s younger sister Betty (Susan Almgren), Jack’s mother.

This is not an uplifting piece, even if it’s adequately conceived, technically efficient, and unmistakably sincere. Declan Quinn’s cinematography paints a drably radiant picture in pre-World War II Ireland, the color artistically desaturated from the flashback segments like stone-washed jeans; nary a bright color in sight save for a red dress the young Fiona wears to a parish-sponsored dance. This Is My Father is straightforward in dealing with the harshness of small minds, overbearing parents, class differences, and severe religious convictions. There are many worse ways to spend two hours in a darkened room, but for all it’s sober intentions, it perhaps performs its function too well. I suspect this film won’t be around the theatrical arena too long, but it’ll be a nice one to catch when it pops up on the home video market later this year. And be sure to watch for the solid, small performance of Brendan Gleeson as Officer Jim. A small role compared to his award-winning performance in John Boorman’s The General, but strangely similar to his portrayal of an American lawman in the forthcoming Lake Placid.

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