Though unable to completely shed its theatrical origins, Tom Collins’ “Kings” offers a trenchant look at the recent Irish immigrant experience, focusing on a group of men whose expectations of the good life in England are crushed by disappointment and alcoholism. Largely set in contempo London, but with flashbacks to the Connemara coast 30 years before, this involving tale boasts a solid ensemble cast largely speaking Irish Gaelic — pic is the first bilingual feature produced in the Emerald Isle. More than simply a novelty, however, “Kings” should perform well at home and on the fest circuit.
Steeped in a nostalgia as pernicious as the cheap liquor they down, a group of friends gather to salute Jackie (Sean O Tarpaigh), a mate whose death under a subway car sparks a heavy night of reassessment. Back in 1977, they were all young and hopeful lads from Connemara in search of jobs and a future, but the 30 years since have not been kind, their faces now prematurely aged by drink, cigarettes, and a general air of defeat.
Only Joe (Colm Meany) achieved financial success, which means he assuages his demons through cocaine rather than the more down-market alcohol of his former friends. Jap (Donal O’Kelly) and Git (Brendan Conroy) are the most far gone, inhabiting a twilight world of drunkenness that further masks their delusions. The rest of the group are Shay (Donncha Crowley), a reasonably contented vegetable seller who’s come to terms with his reduced expectations, and Mairtin (Barry Barnes), struggling with alcoholism and afraid he’s too weak to hold onto his family.
Jackie’s father Micil (Peadar O’Treasaigh) notices Joe, unable to bring himself to pay his respects, loitering by the funeral. Having come from Ireland to bring his boy’s body home, Micil is the sole character living in the present: His vision of Eire is unencumbered by rose-tinted nostalgia. Later that evening, the friends, including Joe, meet up at a pub where liquor and decades of bitterness weightier than the Blarney Stone lead to all manner of accusations and partial reconciliations.
Collins knew he had to expand the film’s vista beyond the pub where Jimmy Murphy’s play takes place, and he’s filled out the early scenes with appropriate London locales and flashbacks in Ireland. While they all feel like lead-ins to the obviously stage-based climax in the bar, they also allow Collins the opportunity to underline his theme of a changing world. The England these men came to in 1977 was full of recent Irish immigrants, but with passing waves of newcomers, the cityscape was transformed into an unrecognizable place for men like these, still stuck in the past and unable to see themselves in the subsequent arrivals.
Without covering over their flaws, Collins (and Murphy’s play) offers these characters understanding. Jap and Git speak of a return to Ireland with the kind of pipe-dream delusions that shatter the lives of another Irish playwright’s characters, Eugene O’Neill. But while this lot is not offered redemption, at least the truth’s harsh glare illuminates their humanity. Collins and the fine cast he’s assembled manage to make real people out of the stereotypes.
Enough handheld is used to further distance pic from the greasepaint, providing additional texture. Editing is smooth and accomplished, while flashbacks are set apart by attractively filtered color intensification.