The first feature by Paul Quinn — collaborating with his brothers Aidan and Declan Quinn — is an ambitious multigenerational tale of love, family and tragedy that’s effective despite a rough-hewn narrative quality. Even with the unprecedented success of “Titanic,” the large-scale romance of “This Is My Father” remains slightly out of step with current moviegoing tastes. Nonetheless, the pic has the potential for good theatrical returns in domestic and international markets and similar prospects in ancillary venues.
Thrust of the tale is that middle-aged schoolteacher Kieran Johnson (James Caan) stumbles across a cache of photos from his mother’s past that indicate his real father may have been an Irish farmer and not a French seaman who died during the war, as he was led to believe. Because his mute, paralyzed mother isn’t capable of shedding light on the situation, he decides to investigate on his own and ventures to the Irish village of his possible ancestors. He takes along his troubled teenage nephew (Jacob Tierney) in hopes that he too will be rejuvenated by getting in touch with his roots.
In searching out his family history, Kieran encounters cautious and ambivalent townspeople. Clearly, his parents’ story represents unpleasant memories for the villagers. But the kindly Mrs. Kearney (Moira Deady), whose son runs the local inn, tells the man she can read his past in “the cards.”
While the film’s setup is unquestionably clunky, once it gets into the historic saga, pic finds a natural stride — and real drama. Kieran’s mother, Fiona Flynn (Moya Farrelly), is the proverbial wild rose who’s returned home after years at a convent school. Poor-as-dirt tenant farmer Kieran O’Day (Aidan Quinn) spots the lass and uncharacteristically steps forward boldly with an invitation to the village dance.
The event is pretty much a fiasco. The naive man unwittingly partakes in spiked punch, and when several local yahoos get fresh with Fiona, he lays them out cold. Luckily, the young woman sees the farmer’s inherent goodness and not his temper. She gives Kieran his first dance lesson. It’s the stuff of true love.
But virtually no one approves of their relationship. Fiona’s mother knows he’ll always be a lowly tiller of the soil; the parish priest (Stephen Rea) sees Fiona as a child and Kieran therefore drifting into the fires of hell.
Paul Quinn’s script is remarkable in the way it conveys the depth of his protagonists’ love and how their insular environment seems to conspire against their union. In this morality tale, the forces of light and dark are meshed rather than at obvious cross purposes. The writer-helmer barely masks his contempt for organized religion and comes to the dark conclusion that there is no reward for decency.
What’s additionally striking about “This Is My Father” is that in spite of its conclusion, the characters and storytelling escape the heavy mantle of tragedy. There’s a matter-of-fact quality to the film that keeps one in the moment.
Though the character of Kieran O’Day is far from a showcase role, the film provides Aidan Quinn with the opportunity to do his most subtle screen work. He’s perfectly in tune with Kieran’s simplicity, portraying him as someone of the sod with a directness that is both his richest asset and his undoing. Similarly, Caan is astonishingly effective in a role that largely asks him to listen and saves his big, heart-wrenching scene for the clinch.
Newcomer Farrelly is a ravishing find, imbuing her part with a winning elan. Helmer Quinn has assembled a stellar cast of Irish thesps including Rea, Donal Donnelly, Brendan Gleeson and Colm Meaney, who lend the piece authenticity and texture.
Handsomely shot by Declan Quinn and with a rich, indigenous score by Donal Lunny, “This Is My Father” is a resonant historic tragedy and an impressive debut work that’s both personal and widely accessible.