Deception is the key element in the early-1960s, Dublin-set “A Man of No Importance.” While it initially reveals itself as a larkish, romantic ode to a bygone time, it evolves darker tones and comes perilously close to full-bore tragedy by fade-out. Commercially, it’s an uneasy mix, requiring very special handling to reach a niche audience. Critical response will play a crucial part in acceptance internationally.
Unquestionably, the emotional roller-coaster ride is kept under control by another full-blooded performance by Albert Finney. He’s Alfie Byrne, a fiftysomething bus conductor with a glint of the poet. His route is a magical mystery tour in which the regular riders have been conscripted into a play circle.
He’s been toying with the idea of staging Oscar Wilde’s “Salome” (following last season’s “The Importance of Being Earnest”) when Adele Rice (Tara Fitzgerald) climbs aboard — his idealized vision of the temptress.
It also appears that the never-married man fancies her away from the rehearsal hall. But, sad to say, she has a boyfriend back in her village.
Barry Devlin’s screenplay recreates Dublin as a small, provincial town where everyone has their nose in their neighbor’s business and the church is the cornerstone of social life.
Alfie, of course, wants to put on his show at the church, and the good father , upon hearing the play’s about John the Baptist, assumes it’s of the highest piety.
But the intimacy of the environment is certain to be Alfie’s undoing. His sister (Brenda Fricker) finds his immersion in books and “art” unhealthy.
Carney (Michael Gambon), the local butcher and King Herod of the piece, is shocked that words such as “virgin” appear in the play, and that Byrne, the director, has his attention focused on Adele.
However, when romance with his star is cut short, the conductor invokes the playwright, asking her if she’s heard of “the love that dare not speak its name.” The man, so devoted to the works of Wilde, begins to wonder whether his fatherly attitude toward his driver Robbie (Rufus Sewell) might actually have a sexual connotation.
Finney plays the role like a finely tuned fiddle. His character’s elfin quality masks not worldliness but naivete. His ability to draw us along in the wrong direction and surprise us with the same revelations he experiences is masterful.
The supporting cast, from vets such as Gambon, Fricker and David Kelly to tyros Fitzgerald and Sewell, is superlative. They provide a rich texture and authenticity which elevate the proceedings.
Still, director Suri Krishnamma can’t quite accommodate the abrupt shifts in tone that infuse the narrative of “A Man of No Importance.”
Despite fine work from his actors and smooth technical polish, the more provocative elements of the tale arise awkwardly and grate against the early section’s almost whimsical nature. It’s an odd melange, decidedly for the more rigorous moviegoer.