Circle of Friends (1995): Tale of Friendship Starring Minnie Driver

(Romantic melodrama color)

Sentimental, old-fashioned fare like Circle of Friends, a sweet look at the friendship between three Irish girls, is not likely to lift Savoy from its recent box-office doldrums. Nonetheless, pic’s warmly nostalgic quality, Pat O’Connor’s sensitive direction, and Minnie Driver’s winning central performance may extend the appeal of this evocative melodrama beyond its immediate audience of young female viewers.

Irishman O’Connor brings his own heritage and expertise to a familiar coming-of-age tale, set in a small Irish town circa l957. A brief prologue introduces the three different protagonists as grade school students in l949. Story then jumps eight years ahead, with Benny (Minnie Driver) and Eve (Geraldine O’Rawe) eagerly escaping the dull confines of hometown Knockglen to attend college in Dublin, where they’re reunited with former mate Nan (Saffron Burrows).

Though some scenes are set in the classroom, tale focuses on the trio’s affairs of the heart–their secrets and dreams, rites of loyalty and betrayal, punishment and redemption. Pragmatic Nan consciously chases Simon (Colin Firth), a wise guy who’s older and richer than the college boys, and Eve becomes infatuated with her new b.f. Aidan (Aidan Gillen).

But chief figure is Benny, the “plain Jane” heroine, who begins a passionate romance with Jack (Chris O’Donnell), the handsome star of the university Rugby team. Narrative details Benny’s emotional transformation from a self-conscious wallflower to a confident and mature woman–overcoming all kinds of obstacles.

In its good scenes, Circle of Friends assumes the nature of a romantic fable with universal meanings. In its worst, however, pic veers off rather sharply into steamed-up melodrama, with shocking revelations, calculated pregnancies, innocent men entrapped as fathers, jaded fools, scheming villains caught cheating.

Somehow, though, the passion holds and the story’s emotions survive, possibly due to the accomplished acting. As Benny’s friends, O’Rawe and Burrows perform beyond the sketchy dimensions of their roles with expertness and conviction. O’Donnell brings his handsome looks and sensitive touch to a tailor-made part; he’s particularly effective in capturing the bewilderment of an innocent guy, amazed to realize that all three girls are attracted to him.

The major weight is brilliantly carried off by Driver, who moves the film along while juggling hopes, doubts and anxieties that will ring true to adolescents experiencing first love. Naturally charming without being beautiful, Driver brings extraordinary intensity and tenderness to a role that could have easily become sappy.

A welcome chapter in O’Connor’s erratic career, pic is better than his disastrous effort, The January Man, but not as interesting as Cal, which provided a sharper look at Irish politics and culture. Still, O’Connor is particularly good at evoking a strong ambience of time and place, greatly assisted by MacMillan’s countryside lensing and Clay’s rustic production design.

Circle of Friends is conventional in a way that has become unconventional, a well-made story in which the evocative atmosphere binds the audience to the characters’ emotions in all their anticipated odysseys. It’s a familiar melodrama, as pleasant to watch, as it is predictable.

Credits

A Savoy Pictures release in association with Rank Film distributors of a Price Entertainment/Lantana production. Produced by Arlene Sellers, Alex Winitsky, Frank Price. Executive producer, Terence Clegg. Co-producer, Kenith Trodd. Directed by Pat O’Connor. Screenplay, Andrew Davies, based on Maeve Binchy’s novel. Camera (Technicolor), Ken MacMillan; editor, John Jympson; music, Michael Kamen; production design, Jim Clay; art direction, Chris Seagers; set decoration, Judy Farr; costume design, Anushia Nierdazik; sound (Dolby), Peter Pennell; assistant director, Clegg; casting, Mary Selway, Simone Ireland. Reviewed at a TriStar screening room, Culver City, Feb. 16, 1995.
MPAA Rating: PG-13.
Running time: 96 min.

Cast

Jack………Chris O’Donnell
Benny……….Minnie Driver
Eve………Geraldine O’Rawe
Nan……….Saffron Burrows
Sean………..Alan Cummings
Simon Westward…Colin Firth