Leaving home, coming out

March 24, 1995|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Ashame, almost, that "A Man of No Importance" and "Circle of Friends" aren't playing at the same theater, for they are set within a few miles of each other, within a few years of each other, and both are consumed with the dilemmas of sexual repression. More astonishingly yet, one figure -- an unmarried, pregnant beauty -- almost walks from one film into the other.

The significant and revealing difference is that one form of sexuality is heterosexual and one is homosexual, and both films reach the same conclusion: Keeping it bottled doesn't do anybody any good!

"Circle of Friends," which is now at the Rotunda, is adapted from a Maeve Binchy novel. Set in 1957 just outside Dublin, it follows three young women nervously entering adulthood through the vessel of a freshman year at the University of Dublin, where liberal ideas of liberation and expression run chockablock into orthodox ideas of morality and order. Its ultimate (though not strident) agenda is feminist. It sees these young women as victims of male oppression and chronicles both the price of such oppression and the heroic means by which they overcome it. But the movie is not man-hating: It suggests that men and women can live together and that love is a possibility.

The central character is Bernadette, called Benny, played radiantly by Minnie Driver. She is delicately poised between worlds, stuck, as it were, between puppy love and third base. Her parents send her to university, but she must catch the bus home each night so she won't be corrupted by temptation. Temptation arrives in the form of a handsome doctor's son, well-played by American Chris O'Donnell behind a modest brogue.

As these two grope toward each other (and Bennie gropes away from her other pursuer, a wormy clerk in her father's haber--ery), the other two friends begin their own tentative explorations. Nan Saffron Burrows), oddly beautiful and innocent at once, begins a love affair with a handsome but married Englishman. When we see his ascot, we know he'll turn out to be a rotter. (Memo to women: Stay away from ascots!) Eve (Geraldine O'Rawe) begins an even clumsier relationship with another young man, but, like so much '50s sex, it's all talk.

The movie meanders for quite a while but fully cranks into fourth gear when the pregnant Nan, turned bitter after having been abandoned by her snooty Brit, makes a crude attempt to steal Jack (O'Donnell) from Benny. This is such an interesting situation that I wish the whole movie had been about it and that Eve, the third character, had been dumped, though she is useful as the deus ex machina figure.

When the pregnant Nan leaves Dublin in disgrace, she could have stepped into a time machine, waited five years, then reappeared in "A Man of No Importance." A disgraced and exiled and impregnated country girl is one of the key figures in "A Man of No Importance," which is again set in Dublin, though now the year is 1963. (It's at the Charles, in rotation with "Queen Margot.")

Almost the first thing that happens to her -- she's now played by Tara Fitzgerald -- is that she's "discovered" by Albert Finney. The actor? No, the bus conductor. Finney is Alfie, a bus conductor with an intense fantasy life, who has convinced a number of his regular passengers that he's some kind of thwarted theatrical genius. Funny, the plays he wants to put on are always about Oscar Wilde.

Alfie convinces the young woman that she'd make a perfect Salome, and because she's lonely and isolated in her shame, she joins the troupe. Experience is not a necessity, nor is talent. It turns out that she does have talent, and that she also has a longing for contact, which poor Alfie can't quite satisfy.

It turns out that he's an extremely closeted homosexual and that his obsession with Wilde is not merely artistic but empathetic. The film follows as his game little production of "Salome" takes shape but eventually becomes a crucible in which his character will be fiercely tested, in a country that hasn't changed much since 1957. Ireland is still ruled by church and tradition, and sexuality, of whatever sort, is still looked upon with a great deal of mistrust. His sister (Brenda Fricker) and a scandalized butcher lead a crusade to close down the naughty production!

Eventually, Alfie finds the courage to come out of the closet, which in his case means dressing up like his idol and going to a gay bar; he gets robbed and beaten for his trouble and his secret is out. Somehow he and his friends come to terms with it.

Both films are sweet- tempered and sweet-hearted, and in both bigots and mashers are amply punished. Both are minor but positive delights.

"Circle of Friends."

"Circle of Friends"

Starring Minnie Driver and Chris O'Donnell

Directed by Pat O'Connor

Released by Savoy

Rated PG-13

***

"A Man of No Importance"

Starring Albert Finney and Tara Fitzgerald

Directed by Suri Krishnamma

Released by Sony Classics

Unrated (nudity, sexual conduct)

***

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