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Circle of Friends (1995)

DIRECTOR: Pat O’Connor

CAST: Minnie Driver, Chris O’Donnell, Saffron Burrows, Geraldine O’Rawe, Colin Firth, Alan Cumming, Aidan Gillen

REVIEW:

An adaptation by Irish filmmaker Pat O’Connor of Maeve Binchy’s novel, Circle of Friends isn’t anything hugely ambitious or original, but it’s a charming, delightful romantic comedy/drama, heartwarming and a little nostalgic and poignant, anchored by an effervescent debut by lead actress Minnie Driver.

Apart from a short childhood prologue in 1949, the movie takes place in 1957 Ireland, centering on three small town girls who’ve been fast friends since childhood, shy, somewhat overweight Bernadette “Benny” Hogan (Minnie Driver), convent-raised orphan Eve Malone (Geraldine O’Rawe), and cosmopolitan, free-thinking Nan Mahan (Saffron Burrows).  Nan has already headed off to the big city in Dublin, where Benny and Eve reunite with her to attend college (though, as Benny complains, she still has to take the bus home to her overprotective parents, “like some sort of simpleton”).  Benny’s parents (Mick Lally, Britta Smith) want to marry her off to their business manager, a sniveling brown-noser named Sean Walsh (Alan Cumming), but Benny is less than enthusiastic about this idea, especially when she meets Nan’s college acquaintance, rugby captain Jack Foley (Chris O’Donnell).  Jack is handsome and charming and, against Benny’s expectations, interested in her.  Nan, meanwhile, goes man-hunting for wealthy socialite Simon Westward (Colin Firth), who might not be as much of a catch as she thinks.  Before the school year’s out, there’ll be romances and betrayals and scandals to deal with, that will test the longevity of the titular “circle of friends”.

Circle of Friends isn’t anything groundbreaking or (despite some raunchy moments) especially edgy.  It’s also an unapologetic old-fashioned melodrama, even if it keeps things lighter and more restrained than it could have.  But it serves up heaps of simple charm and isn’t afraid to touch on some substantive issues.  Much is made of the Catholic Church’s iron grip on 1950s Ireland, and the shame and fear it strikes into young women (“will you be gardens for Jesus, or vessels of sin?” a priest asks them at one point).  Benny complains about the double standard of dumping all the responsibility for upholding their virtue onto the women, while their horny boyfriends are “boys being boys”.  Nan scoffs at religion in general and thinks the priests make it up to suit themselves.  Benny and Jack are both believing Catholics, but they’re also young people with hormones, and find themselves hard-pressed to resist temptation.  While the movie could be considered a romantic comedy, it’s less a comedy than a drama with humorous moments.  The dialogue by Andrew Davies has some witty bits (after being shoved into an awkwardly low-cut dress for a party, the full-figured Benny self-deprecatingly comments that she looks like the prow of a ship).  The young characters are intelligent and articulate and don’t resort to juvenile behavior for lazy laughs.  Benny and Jack bond over serious conversations where they ask each other’s thoughts and feelings about religion, sex, and what they want to do with their lives.  “You’re really there,” Jack comments at one point on the fact that Benny is an all-too-rare person whom he can talk to where it actually means something.

The linchpin of Circle of Friends‘ success is the marvelous debut of Minnie Driver, upon whom much of the movie depends.  While by no means unattractive, Benny is not a perfect model—Driver gained thirty pounds for the part, she has wild unruly hair, and she’s not afraid to be awkward and occasionally dress unflatteringly, like when she’s bulging out of an ill-chosen party dress—but she’s luminous.  She has enough screen presence, unaffected charm, and boundless bubbly energy to easily out-shine more conventionally attractive women (including Saffron Burrows’ superficially glamorous Nan) around her, and she can project vulnerability equally convincingly.  Put simply, Driver is delightful, and she deserves a large share of the credit for Circle of Friends being such a delightful experience.  Chris O’Donnell doesn’t have as forceful of a presence, but he slips comfortably into the role of the love interest and manages to make Jack likable rather than bland (an easy pitfall for this “handsome and charming” type), and connects credibly enough with Driver to make Benny and Jack’s romance sweet in a way that’s pleasant rather than artificial; plump, somewhat awkward Benny doesn’t expect to attract the attention of a hunky golden boy like Jack, but they connect over heart-to-hearts where they actually have serious conversations, not just because two pretty people look photogenic together.  Saffron Burrows gets her own subplot as Nan, who fancies herself a sophisticated, cosmopolitan man-hunter but might be setting herself up, but Geraldine O’Rawe doesn’t get as much focus apart from playing Benny’s steadfast BFF.  Alan Cumming is hilariously oily as Benny’s would-be suitor Sean Walsh.  He greases it up for all he’s worth, slithering around with such weaselly glee that he gets creepy laughs whenever he appears.  Colin Firth’s Simon Westward is outwardly a charming gentleman but reveals himself a shallow cad.  Smaller supporting roles include Aidan Gillen as Eve’s boyfriend, Mick Lally and Britta Smith as Benny’s parents, John Kavanagh and Ruth McCabe as Nan’s parents, and a dry-witted Ciaran Hinds as a college professor.

Circle of Friends doesn’t break any new ground, but it’s a nice little story, well-told, with a lot of charm, a little substance, and a debut by Minnie Driver that’s sure to attract attention.  For this kind of pleasant, nostalgic, sweetly sentimental romantic comedy/drama fable, it’s a delightful concoction.

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