A Coming-of-age Tale Of Love And Friendship

Posted: March 24, 1995

Jack Foley and Bernadette "Benny" Hogan are walking through splendidly green, tangled woods. He's a rugby star at the University of Dublin, she's a village girl come to the big city to take up studies. He's blue-eyed handsome, she's a little heavyset, a little homely - at least, she feels she is. But Benny has a self-awareness that beams out from her, radiant and charismatic, and the two have fallen fast in love.

On the banks of a stream, the conversation turns, with only the slightest awkwardness, to sex. Jack confesses he's still a virgin. Benny, "of course," is too. It is 1957 in Ireland, and the tenets of Roman Catholicism weigh heavy over the land. Even simple contraceptives are outlawed. Benny winces mockingly, thinking about the act of making love. "It's like having someone

put their finger up your nose," she shudders, smiling, still sorely tempted by the unknown.

Circle of Friends, a coming-of-age story adapted from Maeve Binchy's 1991 novel, is at its charming best in scenes such as this, candid, gently comic and strong in its evocation of young, true love. The film has been assuredly directed by Pat O'Connor (Cal, A Month in the Country), an Irishman who understands the dynamics of small-town life and the opposing forces of religion and romance. It is helped immeasurably by its winning lead, Minnie Driver, an actress with round, expressive features, long, dark curls, and a smile to die for. Returning to the village from a day at university - a requirement laid down by her strict, shopkeeping parents - Driver's Benny breathes on the windowpane of her bus, then etches a heart onto the foggy glass. Her expression of moony-eyed love is absolutely perfect.

In the role of Jack, who is studying medicine and plans to follow in the footsteps of his doctor father, is Chris O'Donnell, the American actor of Scent of a Woman and the forthcoming Batman Forever (in which he plays a punked-up Robin). Although his accent isn't altogether convincing, everything else about O'Donnell's character - his physical charm, his forthrightness, his naivete - is. Together, O'Donnell and Driver are captivating.

Circle of Friends is also a story of friendship and the strains that impending adulthood and a woman's sexuality place on those bonds. Bookended with Benny's voice-over narration (a device that should be banned from the coming-of-age genre), the picture traces the relationship between Benny and Eve, an orphan raised by nuns, and Nan, a childhood pal who has grown into a movie-star glamorous woman. Nan (Saffron Burrows), as beautiful as she is manipulative, has fixed her sights on a local lord of the manor (Colin Firth). Her affair with the stuffy Brit, carried out in secret in a cottage belonging to Eve, culminates in calamity and deceit. Nan's machinations have a profound effect on everyone, shaking the very foundations of Benny and Jack's love.

Circle of Friends' depiction of the three women's commiserations and betrayals calls to mind any number of Hollywood melodramas of the '40s and '50s. Although the film, written by Andrew Davies (the Emmy-winning House of Cards), wanders onto its own melodramatic terrain, O'Connor skillfully underplays scenes with the most potential for histrionics, and leavens things throughout with humor.

Most notable is the comedic, almost-over-the-top performance Alan Cumming gives as a weaselly shop assistant with designs on both Benny and her father's business. Although Cumming's portrayal takes a dark, ugly turn toward the end, it isn't too much of a stretch. And his metamorphosis from an ineffectual slimeball to a threatening one allows Benny to give him his long-awaited comeuppance, affirming her own uncanny instincts in the process.

CIRCLE OF FRIENDS * * *

Produced by Arlene Sellers, Alex Winitsky and Frank Price, directed by Pat O'Connor, written by Andrew Davies, photography by Ken MacMillan, music by Michael Kamen, distributed by Savoy Pictures.

Running time: 1:44

Jack - Chris O'Donnell

Benny - Minnie Driver

Eve - Geraldine O'Rawe

Nan - Saffron Burrows

Sean - Alan Cumming

Parent's guide: PG-13 (sexual themes, profanity)

Showing at: area theaters

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