Fifth Province: Surreal Irish Fable

Galway Film Festival, July 11, 1997–Ace lenser Bruno De Keyser endows The Fifth Province, a surreal fable about the eternal possibilities of love, with luminous imagery that accentuates the film’s magical elements. The uneven direction of Frank Stapleton, who co-wrote the original script, and some of the actors, do not always fulfill the potential of the enchanting narrative. But the film has enough charm and appeal to cross Irish borders and attract the arthouse crowds in select European and American markets.

The premise of the film, which also explains its title, is that there are five provinces in Ireland, “four we know about,” as someone says, “but the fifth province is a province of magic, of passion, of possibility.” Basically, it’s the kind of cinematic territory that has been explored by American indie filmmaker, Tom DiCillo, in his fables, Johnny Swede and even more so Box of Moonlight.

Protagonist is Timmy (terrifically played by Brian F. O’Byrne), a shy guesthouse keeper (and frustrated writer), who lives with his loony, domineering mother (Joan O’Hara) in what must be the most rainy part of the Irish midlands. Timmy’s only contact with the human world is with his eccentric psychiatrist, Dr. Drudy (veteran thesp Ian Richardson), in whom he confides his utmost secret: his infatuation with the President of Ireland, who in this tale is a bland-looking woman.

When a new motorway, the Mid-Western By-pass, is constructed, it puts Timmy’s guesthouse off the map–and out of business. Still, out of the blue arrives a strange time-traveling visitor, a Spanish pilot called Marcel (Anthony Higgins), who in due course creates havoc and changes everybody’s life.

Timmy attends an international writing conference, where the tutor is a glamorous Belgian femme named Diana de Brie (Lia Williams). Diana dismisses Timmy’s kind of stories, claiming that what the public wants are “fast, urban, upbeat” tales. But her critical views don’t prevent her from falling for Timmy, whose naivete and innocence prove irresistible to her.

A mysterious figure, who changes identities and masks as frequently as other people change shirts, Marcel reappears as a “tulpa,” a character conjured up from Timmy’s imagination. Marcel asks Timmy to “call” the woman he desires, and, not surprisingly, the result is Diana. Brimming with new-found confidence and in total control of his creation, novelist Timmy makes Diana leave her hotel and travel all across Ireland to his motel.

Once Diana arrives in the isolated guesthouse, the fable becomes a conscious spoof of Hitchcock’s Psycho, offering a number of hilarious twists and surprises on the relationship between Norman Bates and his mother and the famous murder scene. As soon as the duo get rid of Timmy’s mad mom, they are free to declare love, and in the last scene, they burst into a passionate tango atop a cliff.

As written, The Fifth Province has all the attributes of a charming fairy tale, but the execution falls short of the filmmaker’s intent. For this kind of material to exert its allure on audiences, a much lighter and more graceful staging was needed. Unfortunately, many sequences in the movie are off-key, and helmer Stapleton’s tendency for languor make the proceedings unnecessarily tedious. This is particularly evident in the interactions between Timmy and Diana, which are further marred by the actress’ high-schoolish French accent and occasionally off-putting mannerisms.

O’Byrne’s multi-nuanced performance, which is just right for this kind of absurdist fantasy, compensates considerably for the other faults of the film. Physically, the production is impeccable, with De Keyser’s astutely graded lensing, Ned McLoughlin’s imaginative production design, and Carol Betera’s colorful costumes, giving the fable its requisite magnetic texture.