An Irish-set “Summer of ’77” that mixes an agreeable cocktail from familiar ingredients, “The Last of the High Kings” ambles along with a twinkle in its eye for most of the time but draws together its multiple character threads for a satisfying emotional payoff in the final reel. Film, which bows in the U.K. Dec. 6, could be a moderate performer theatrically with careful placement.
Co-scripted by Gabriel Byrne from a novel by Ferdia Mac Anna, the movie is the most accomplished of a trio of recent pics (all unspooled at this year’s London film festival) on which the Irish thesp has been involved both behind and in front of the camera. Others are the light wartime comedy “The Brylcreem Boys” and U.S.-based drama “Somebody Is Waiting,” on which Byrne took co-producer credits and essentially supporting roles.
Bookending the present item, Byrne plays flamboyant actor Jack Griffin, a mostly absent husband to equally flamboyant former actress Cathleen O’Donnell (Canada’s Catherine O’Hara), who claims that her children are descended from the legendary High Kings of Ireland. The fiercely anti-Protestant and nationalistic Ma rules a pleasantly shambolic house on the outskirts of Dublin in which her son, Frankie (Jared Leto, from the TV series “My So-Called Life”), is the sole male.
Frankie has all the usual problems of a 17-year-old, fantasizing about two out-of-reach babes (Lorraine Pilkington, Emily Mortimer) at school and worrying about exam results due in August. Sure of failure on all fronts, he’s determined to put all his energies into organizing an American-style beach party (inspired by his love of Elvis movies), despite his pals’ scoffing at the lunatic idea.
Further complicating matters is the arrival of some of Jack’s friends from Milwaukee, among them forthright teen Erin (Christina Ricci), who discombobulates the virginal Frankie with her frank sexual overtures. Frankie is also thrown by worries that his mother may be more than just a friend to slimy local politician Jim Davern (Colm Meaney).
Despite its colorful Irish canvas, period detail and rich array of characters, pic follows the traditional coming-of-age format by making the boy’s loss of virginity the key factor in unlocking his personality. Starting with an elaborate pool-playing sequence that sets up the sexual dynamics between Frankie, outgoing blonde Jane (Pilkington) and brunette Romy (Mortimer), and segueing to a genuinely funny bed scene with Jane, the film at least follows through on this dramatic line, with Frankie finally realizing his future lies with the quieter Romy.
Though hardly surprising, the development is typical of the picture’s easygoing charm and a script that manages to deliver emotionally thanks to the strength of the performances. O’Hara, delivering a convincing Irish accent, is the fire that drives most of the film, but at base it’s an ensemble picture that has plenty of room for rapidly sketched supports from the likes of Ricci, Byrne, Meaney and (in a cameo as a blarney-ful cab driver) Stephen Rea.
Co-scripter/director David Keating, in his first feature outing, makes the most of the rural setting without overdoing the picturesque side, and a snappy, poppy soundtrack keeps things moving along.