Ace lenser Bruno De Keyser endows “The Fifth Province,” a surreal fable about the eternal possibilities of love, with luminous imagery that accentuates the film’s magical elements. But the uneven direction of Frank Stapleton, who co-wrote the original script, and some of the performances do not always fulfill the potential of the enchanting narrative. Still, pic has enough charm and appeal to cross Irish borders and attract arthouse crowds in select European and American markets.
The premise is that there are five provinces in Ireland, “four we know about, ” as someone says, “but the fifth province is a province of magic, of passion, of possibility.” This is the kind of cinematic territory that American indie filmmaker Tom DiCillo has explored in his fables “Johnny Suede” and, particularly, “Box of Moonlight.”
Timmy (terrifically played by Brian F. O’Byrne) is a shy guest-house keeper, and frustrated writer, who lives with his loony, domineering mother (Joan O’Hara) in what must be the rainiest part of the Irish midlands. Timmy’s only contact with the outside world is with his eccentric psychiatrist, Dr. Drudy (veteran thesp Ian Richardson), in whom he confides his utmost secret: his infatuation with the president of Ireland, who in this tale is a bland-looking woman.
When a new motorway, the Mid-Western Bypass, is constructed, it puts Timmy’s guest house off the map — and out of business. Still, out of the blue arrives a strange time-traveling visitor, a Spanish pilot called Marcel (Anthony Higgins) who in due course creates havoc and changes everybody’s life. Timmy attends an international writing conference, where the tutor is glamorous Belgian femme Diana de Brie (Lia Williams). Diana dismisses Timmy’s kind of stories, claiming that the public wants “fast, urban, upbeat” tales. But her critical views don’t prevent her from falling for Timmy, whose naivete and innocence prove irresistible to her.
A mysterious figure who changes identities and masks as frequently as other people change shirts, Marcel reappears as a “tulpa,” a character conjured up from Timmy’s imagination. Marcel asks Timmy to “call” the woman he desires. Brimming with new-found confidence and in total control of his creation, novelist Timmy makes Diana leave her hotel and travel across Ireland to him.
Once Diana arrives in the isolated guest house, the fable becomes a conscious spoof of Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” offering a number of hilarious twists on the relationship between Norman Bates and his mother and on the famous murder scene.
As written, “The Fifth Province” has all the attributes of a charming fairy tale, but the execution falls short of the filmmaker’s intent. This kind of material requires much lighter and more graceful staging to exert its full allure. Unfortunately, many sequences are off-key, and helmer Stapleton’s tendency toward languor makes the proceedings unnecessarily tedious. This is particularly evident in the interactions between Timmy and Diana, which are further marred by the actress’s high-schoolish French accent and occasionally off-putting mannerisms.
Fortunately, O’Byrne’s nuanced performance, which is just right for absurdist fantasy, compensates considerably for pic’s faults. Physically, the production is impeccable, with De Keyser’s astutely graded lensing, Ned McLoughlin’s imaginative production design and Carol Betera’s colorful costumes giving the fable its requisite magnetism and texture.