Sentimental, old-fashioned fare like “Circle of Friends,” a sweet look at the friendship among three Irish girls, is not likely to lift Savoy from its recent B.O. doldrums. Nonetheless, pic’s warmly nostalgic quality, Pat O’Connor’s sensitive direction and Minnie Driver’s winning central performance may extend the appeal of this evocative melodrama beyond its immediate audience of young female viewers.
O’Connor brings his Irish heritage and his expertise to a familiar coming-of-age tale, set in a small Irish town in 1957. A brief prologue introduces the three protagonists as grade school students in 1949. Story then jumps eight years ahead, with Benny (Driver) and Eve (Geraldine O’Rawe) eagerly escaping the dull confines of hometown Knockglen to attend college in Dublin, where they’re reunited with former mate Nan (Saffron Burrows).
Though some scenes are set in the classroom, tale focuses on the trio’s affairs of the heart — their secrets and dreams, rites of loyalty and betrayal, punishment and redemption. Pragmatic Nan consciously chases Simon (Colin Firth), a wise guy who’s older and richer than the college boys, and Eve becomes infatuated with Aidan (Aidan Gillen).
But chief figure is Benny, the “plain Jane” heroine, who begins a passionate romance with Jack (Chris O’Donnell), the handsome star of the university rugby team. Narrative details Benny’s emotional transformation from a self-conscious wallflower to a confident and mature woman, overcoming all kinds of obstacles.
In its good scenes, “Circle of Friends” assumes the nature of a romantic fable with universal meanings. In its worst, however, pic veers off rather sharply into steamed-up melodrama, withshocking revelations, calculated pregnancies, innocent men entrapped as fathers, jaded fools and scheming villains.
Somehow, though, the passion holds and the story’s emotions survive, due in large measure to the accomplished acting. As Benny’s friends, O’Rawe and Burrows perform beyond the sketchy dimensions of their roles with expertness and conviction. O’Donnell brings his good looks and sensitive touch to a tailor-made part; he’s particularly effective in capturing the bewilderment of an innocent guy, amazed to realize that all three girls are attracted to him.
But the major weight is brilliantly carried off by Driver, who moves the film along while juggling hopes, doubts and anxieties that will ring true to adolescents experiencing first love. Naturally charming without being beautiful, Driver brings extraordinary intensity and tenderness to a role that easily could have become sappy.
A welcome chapter in O’Connor’s erratic career, pic is better than his disastrous effort “The January Man” but not as interesting as “Cal,” which provided a sharper look at Irish politics and culture. Still, the director is particularly good at evoking time and place, greatly assisted by Ken MacMillan’s countryside lensing and Jim Clay’s rustic production design.
“Circle of Friends” is conventional in a way that has become unconventional, a well-made story in which the evocative atmosphere binds the audience to the characters’ emotions in all their anticipated odysseys. It’s a familiar melodrama, as pleasant to watch as it is predictable.