Playboys, The

Ireland seems to be a country with a vibrant film industry, determined to leave its mark on the international cinema. A cycle of revisionist Irish films began with the Oscar-winning My Left Foot in 1989, and continued last year with the musical The Commitments, and the winning comedy Hear My Song. Now comes The Playboys, a charming and lyrical movie, co-written by Shane Connaughton (who scripted My Left Foot) and Kerry Crabbe.

The film is set in 1957, before TV and cars became popular, a rural context that explains the centrality of the two institutions in the villages' life: the church and the theater. It also highlights the movie's major issue: the collision of values between Ireland's pastoral past and its more modern present.

The film takes its title from a touring company that now performs in town. The charlatan theater manager (Milo O'Shea) and his talentless actors present one night Othello, and the next a dramatization of Gone With the Wind. But provincial as it is, the theater also holds magic–a blind woman gets so excited during a show that she suddenly regains her vision.

Tara Maguire (Robin Wright) is a fiery rebel unashamed of her illegitimate baby. The story begins when the pregnant Tara breaks water in the midst of a Sunday sermon. Tara seems to have influence on just about every man in town: one commits suicide, another courts her, and still another goes mad. The town is scandalized when the baby's father is revealed to be the old policeman (Albert Finney). Tara (bearing the name of the plantation in Gone With the Wind) is a feisty feminist who also upholds traditional values–she believes marriage should be based on romantic love.

The film may have been inspired by John Ford's classic, The Quiet Man, starring John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara. Like that l952 film, it is a love story, in this case, between Tara, a colleen in the manner of Maureen O'Hara, and Tom (Aidan Quinn), the star of the Playboys. This handsome film also resembles Ford's work in its beauty, taking full advantage of Ireland's lovely pastoral scenery.

A departure from most American films made today, The Playboys is a writers' and actors' movie. The screenwriters know how to weave an engaging tale with a compelling gallery of characters: priests, gossips, actors, seamstresses, even undercover IRA. A classic narrative (with a beginning, middle and end), the film blends humor and grimness, harshness and tenderness in equal measures. The Playboys is an unusual film–full of sentiment, but without sentimentality.

Finney, the British actor, whose range seems to be limitless. Finney plays the lonely policeman from Dublin as an arrogant brute who cannot control his inner violence. There's something truly terrifying in his dark outbursts of malice and rage. It is ultimately Finney's performance that elevates the film to the exhilarating experience it is.

Is the future of narrative cinema dependent on countries like Ireland and Australia The Playboys marks the feature debut of Gillies Mackinnon, and Proof, the new Australian film, announces the arrival of another talent, writer-director Jocelyn Moorehouse.