This "Romeo and Juliet" story set in Northern Ireland is a winner, with well-known thesps Richard Harris, Gabriel Byrne and John Lynch providing some marquee value, but newcomers Samantha Morton and Ross McDade carrying the day. Writer-director Mary McGuckian has a firm sense of place and time (Northern Ireland after the 1994 cease-fire) but concentrates on individual characters rather than converting them into walking symbols. With proper handling this could find some arthouse success.

This “Romeo and Juliet” story set in Northern Ireland is a winner, with well-known thesps Richard Harris, Gabriel Byrne and John Lynch providing some marquee value, but newcomers Samantha Morton and Ross McDade carrying the day. Writer-director Mary McGuckian has a firm sense of place and time (Northern Ireland after the 1994 cease-fire) but concentrates on individual characters rather than converting them into walking symbols. With proper handling this could find some arthouse success.

Hazel (Morton) is newly baptized into a small Protestant sect at film’s start. Subsequently accompanying her quirky neighbor (Harris) to a farm show in nearby Belfast, she meets Malachy (McDade), a Catholic. Budding romance is threatened on both sides. While Malachy’s brother Padhar (Lynch) approves, Padhar’s pal Rohan (Byrne) — a leader in the militant underground — does not. In fact, he’s not only eager to prevent Padhar from walking away from the cause, but he wants Malachy recruited into it. Meanwhile, Hazel’s obsessive brother Jef (Marc O’Shea) spies on her clandestine meetings, reporting back to their uptight mother (Dearbhla Molloy), who decrees Hazel a “whore.” Much trouble ensues before cautiously upbeat ending.

Pic works because of strength of material and surprising depth of cast. Film turns on the young romantic leads, and McGuckian scores with the film debuts of Morton and McDade. Byrne and Harris bring the right mixture of humor and creepiness to their performances, making it difficult to be certain just where their characters stand.

There really isn’t a bad performance in the lot. Several in small roles, including Ian McElhinney as Hazel’s quietly supportive father, Stella McCusker as Malachy’s life-affirming mother and Des McAleer as a cynically observant member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, are standouts. Director McGuckian has a nice turn in the role of Padhar’s girlfriend.

One drawback for U.S. release will be the music. Though the song score utilizes music well known to Irish audiences, scenes of the Waterboys and Brian Kennedy in performance slow down the action, and may not resonate with Stateside viewers. (The film’s title comes from the title song of the Waterboys’ 1985 album.)

McGuckian easily handles shifts of mood from comic to tragic, deftly avoiding situations that have turned into cliches from overuse. Her background includes work with filmmaker Jim Sheridan, whom she repays with a small role as a station keeper in the film. Tech credits are crisp, and location work in Belfast offers viewers a different take on a cityscape usually depicted as war-torn rubble.

This Is the Sea

(IRISH)

Production

A First Look Pictures/Overseas Film Group presentation of a Pembridge production. Produced by Michael Garland. Executive producer, Cameron McCracken. Co-producer, Judy Counihan. Directed, written by Mary McGuckian.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor, Panavision), Des Whelan; editor, Kant Pan; music, Mike Scott, the Waterboys, Brian Kennedy; production design, Claire Kenny; art direction, David Butterworth; costume design, John Rocha, Odette Rocha; sound (Dolby), Phil Croal; assistant director, Ian Madden, Nick Laws; casting, John and Ros Hubbard. Reviewed at Landmark Theatres Kendall Square Cinemas, Cambridge, Mass., Sept. 15, 1997. (In Boston, London film festivals.) Running time: 104 MIN.

With

Hazel Stokes ..... Samantha Morton Malachy McAliskey ..... Ross McDade Old Man Jacobs ..... Richard Harris Rohan ..... Gabriel Byrne Padhar McAliskey ..... John Lynch Ma Stokes ..... Dearbhla Molloy Da Stokes ..... Ian McElhinney Jef Stokes ..... Marc O'Shea Ma McAliskey ..... Stella McCusker Cathy ..... Mary McGuckian Inspector Wilson ..... Des McAleer

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