'Far and Away' is a weak attempt at an epic

May 22, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

The only thing wrong with "Far and Away" is that it's near and close.

A somewhat simple-minded, overwrought mock epic, it ought to get poor David Lean spinning in his grave. Imagine an Irish "Dr. HD as directed by Opie and you've got it.

It was directed by Opie -- by the grown-up Ron Howard, that is -- and his worst move is to give the movie a lush, sprawling visual vocabulary. It has more helicopter shots than an air assault in Vietnam 20 years back, and when the camera in an opening sequence climbs a craggy spume---ed cliff, ascends a steep though emerald hill in the blazing sunshine to find a shanty Irish farmstead rusticating at a 90-degree angle in poverty so picturesque it could be a theme park in Orlando called Poorland, you know exactly where you are: in a movie.

Clearly, that's what Howard wants you to know; he's envisioned the film as a stylized romance, not "real" in any sense, a pure, visceral, old-fashioned entertainment. But the Godlike vastness of his style continually rams hard up against the smallness of the characters and the triteness of their situations. This is the first $40 million movie ever made on the subject of not having sex.

The set piece of the movie is a long sequence set in Boston where, by melodramatic contrivance, Tom Cruise as a banty, shanty, runty Irish peasant, and Nichole Kidman, as a lithe, lissome, Irish aristocrat, are forced to cohabit in a bordello under the pretext that they are brother and sister. Because this is really a '30s movie, it is predetermined that they will not sleep together, but the mounting sexual tension that each feels, when not expressing itself in infantile behavior such as peeking at each other, is the source of all the movie's comedy and motive.

Cruise's Joseph Donnelly, for example, uses the pent-up fury in his loins to propel himself to local fame as a bare-knuckles fighter, swiftly rising through the ranks by pummeling to pulp men who presumably have sex lives and therefore lack his primal drive. Kidman's Shannon Christie lets the ache in her bones turn her into something of an idiot. Still, one big joke of the movie is that those of us in the audience know that these two wonderful kids deserve each other about an hour and a half of screen time before they do. What we're waiting for is the money shot, the liplock, the facemeld.

Mr. and Mrs. Cruise bring this yearning/churning/burning thing off nicely, and it's nice to discover that Mrs. Cruise has an exquisite sense of comic timing, which makes the movie quite funny on occasion. As for Mr. Cruise, how is his Irish accent? Well, it's better than Kevin Costner's English accent in "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves," but that's as far as it goes.

The movie briefly flirts with a theme brilliantly explored in J. M. Barrie's "The Admirable Crichton." When peasant and aristocrat are flung into a natural world -- in this case, the rambunctious America of the late 19th century, rather than Barrie's desert island -- it's the peasant whose natural vitality and toughness reveals him to be the better man. Alas, when "society" is restored, with all his talents, he's again relegated to the bottom of the heap by the epicene lords who wrongfully run the world. But the movie doesn't develop this consistently, into a big payoff. It doesn't develop anything consistently.

It's crudely divided into three "big" sections -- Ireland, where Cruise, victim of the gentry, meets cute with Kidman in her rich father's barn; Boston, where, having fled the oppression at home, they become roomies; and Oklahoma, where they are separately drawn by the hope of free land in the land rush. The final Oklahoma section is the worst: It feels slap-- and disconnected from what's gone before it, and the '30s movie convention of having everybody meet up again on the principle of "fate" really feels ludicrous in the 1990s.

'Far and Away'

Starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman.

Directed by Ron Howard.

Released by Universal.

Rated PG-13.

** 1/2

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