Far and Away: Period Melodrama Starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman

There is one exciting sequence in Ron Howard’s new movie, Far and Away: the great Oklahoma land rush of 1893.

Shot in Montana (standing in for Oklahoma), with over 800 actors and 400 horses, you really sense the tension and exhilaration of this colorful chapter of America’s past. Other than that, this romantic adventure, starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, is little more than an old-fashioned, inspirational tale about the importance of having a dream and making it come true. In its sensibility and lack of sophistication, Far and Away is a typical rags-to-riches movie, not unlike Rocky. The film’s issues are simple; the distinction between heroes and villains is clear.

This melodramatic film is based on the attraction of opposites. Joseph Donelly (Cruise) and Shannon Christie (Kidman) come from different social milieus, though both are prisoners of the rigid Irish class system. Set in l892, the Ireland of Joseph and Shannon is a divided and polarized country. It is a time when tenant farmers, like Joseph’s family, are beginning to rebel against the cruel rents and evictions imposed by their landlords. The upper class, which governs from their remote estates, never bothers to see the land they own. Joseph’s ambition to have a piece of land he can call his own is a dream inherited from his father.

Under strange circumstances, the two youngsters become traveling companions. They escape to America for a new beginning; all they have is their vision and hope. For most of the movie, Joseph and Shannon interact as brother and sister. But you know exactly how the story will end. The only curiosity is at what point they will consummate their relationship.

The screenplay is based on a story by Howard and Bob Dolman. It’s obviously a personal project for Howard, who sees the movie as dealing with “the strange twists of fate that guide us to our destiny.” “It’s the type of story,” he explains, “that we all wish had happened in our family.” Judging by what’s on the screen, however, it’s hard to tell why it took eight years to develop the overly naive screenplay.

The role of Shannon is written with a slight feminist touch–she is meant to be an intelligent woman who, unlike her model of decorum mother, wants to control her own destiny. As Shannon, Kidman gives an assured, focused, and full-bodied performance.

The problem is Cruise. Though handsome and appealing, everything he does is expected and predictable. With the exception of an Irish accent, which Cruise manages to pull off, the role is not much of a stretch. It is clearly a star vehicle, which allows Cruise to display his familiar screen persona. But there is something of a little boy’s mischief in Cruise’s work–as if he himself doubts the credibility of his character.

Everything in the film is grand, but also obvious and simple-minded. Take John Williams’s rousing score, for example. Williams’ music tips us of what will happen, and alerts us to the heavy stuff–emotional, sexual, political–telling us how to feel at every turn of the story. Worse yet, the films lacks interesting secondary characters; Shannon’s parents and her stuffy beau are basically caricatures.

Howard’s direction has a light tone and an enjoyable professionalism that help bridge the material’s occasional lapses. Howard shows his penchant for staging whimsical behavior, finding the gentle humor in the exchanges between the two protagonists. Among the funnier episodes is one in which Shannon is peeping at Joseph’s genitals while he is asleep. Howard works best when he is setting the two characters in motion, and least well when the picture’s embarrassingly conventional structure is revealed. His direction ultimately falters in the awkward transitions of the film’s many scenes.

As a love story, Far and Away pays tribute to America as the land of unlimited opportunities. It is the kind of good-bad film that is intermittently enjoyable, though utterly predictable. “The land is a man’s very soul,” Mr. Donnely tells his son before dying. Joseph’s commitment to the land is no different from Scarlett O’Hara’s attachment to Tara in Gone With the Wind.

As an immigrants’ saga, Far and Away regrettably lacks the grit, realism and intelligence of a film like The Immigrants (l972) about the Swedish experience in the U.S. Released at a time of political unrest, with new films about the African-American and Hispanic experience, one can only speculate about the effects of Far and Away on the Irish-American community–perhaps it will boost their spirits and elevate their self-image.