A traditional Irish music competition serves to ignite new passions, freshen old resentments and stir up the rivalry between two long-feuding brothers in “The Boys From County Clare.” Given a lift by its folksy soundtrack of toe-tapping Ceili dance tunes, the film is handsomely produced and engaging enough, but never more than that due to a weak dramatic arc and soft conflicts in Nicholas Adams’ script and to John Irvin’s functional direction. Theatrical prospects appear mild at best, although older audiences may respond to the comedy-drama’s sweet sentiments and musical accent.
Set in the late ’60s, the story starts in Liverpool, where successful businessman Jimmy (Colm Meaney) prepares to return to his native Ireland for the first time in more than 20 years, taking his Ceili band to participate in an annual music competition. Back in County Clare, Jimmy’s estranged older brother John Joe (Bernard Hill) also readies his band for the contest.
Tension between Jimmy and John Joe is heightened by their past relationships to Maisie (Charlotte Bradley), who plays piano in the latter’s band. While John Joe was in love with her, Jimmy seduced Maisie years earlier and then vanished to Liverpool, leaving her to raise her daughter Anne (Andrea Corr) alone. Maisie’s bitterness and distrust of men causes her to keep Anne on a tight leash. But the independent-minded girl — a talented fiddle player in John Joe’s band — breaks away when she falls for Jimmy’s star flute player Teddy (Shaun Evans).
While it’s set up as the dramatic heart of the film, the music competition final comes and goes with a relatively low buildup. Rather than resolving the characters’ conflicts to coincide with the event, the script deals with them both during and after the contest, often evaporating without much dramatic muscle. The harmony of the final outcome is touching, however, and reasonably satisfying, despite the shortage of emotional sparks.
Meaney plays an irascible, foul-mouthed Irishman like several he’s played before, but does so with energy and humor, working well against Hill’s soft-edged crustiness and quiet air of melancholy, especially as fraternal feelings return between them. In her first leading film role, Corr — of Irish pop group the Corrs — acquits herself with self assurance. Similarly appealing fellow newcomer Evans shows sensitivity and warmth.
Cinematographer Thomas Burstyn’s subdued colors and polished widescreen lensing, and Tom McCullagh’s unemphatic period production design give the film a classy look. Unspoiled locations on the Isle of Man and in Northern Ireland stood in for the West.