directed by Pat Connor

How's this for a film plot: An Irish lad has a crush on the town's new librarian.

Sound dull? It could be, if the town weren't Ulster, the librarian weren't the widow of a slain Protestant police office and the lad weren't the driver of the assassin's getaway car. To complicate matters, the lad, Cal, knows all of the above, while the object of his attention, Marcella Morton, doesn't.

Nothing in Northern Ireland is simple, especially if it involves Protestants, Catholics and the police. Cal, a 1985 film directed by Pat Connor, involves all three. And more.

Cal (John Lynch) lives with his father (Donal McCann) in a working-class section of Ulster. His father works in a local slaughterhouse, and Cal stays home and plays "Born Under a Bad Sign" on his guitar. It's a prophetic performance.

Their hold on their homestead is shaky. They live under the threat of being burned out by militant Protestants who feel there's no place in Northern Ireland for Catholics.

At the same time, Cal is under pressure to continue working for the Irish Republican Army, which feels there's no place in Northern Ireland for Protestants -- militant or otherwise. And the police, of course, would love to get their hands on the men who killed their mate.

Despite these impediments to life and love, the permanently pensive Cal manages to latch onto a position on the Morton farm, where Marcella (Helen Mirren) lives with her late husband's parents, and he eventually becomes a tenant on the estate. There he works in plain view of the elder Mr. Morton, who was seriously wounded during his son's murder.

Now with all this going on, it's hard to imagine that Cal is a slow-moving film, but it is. Short of the shooting, which takes place in a pre-title montage and is reprised in brief flashbacks, Cal advances deliberately from one scene to another, often with minimal dialogue.

Adding to the brooding quality is O'Connor's view of Ulster, a town where it stops raining only when it's snowing, and Lynch's portrayal of Cal as a young man who sees much but says little, even when he's bursting to speak.

The result is that Cal breaks with many of the conventions of films about Ireland: There's little humor and less drinking; even the usual traditional Gaelic background music is replaced by an Irish-ish Mark Knopfler score.

Neither is Cal highly accessible. The Irish accents are thick, making some of the early dialogue hard to follow. And until Cal's past catches up with him at a secluded military checkpoint one night, there are few thrills and spills to get the heart racing.

Yet it's hard not to feel for Cal, hard not to hurt when he's beaten by thugs for being Catholic, hard not to fear for him when he tries to break with his IRA comrades, hard not to urge him on as he draws closer and closer to the ever-more approachable Marcella.

Cal works, ultimately, because Cal works: He puts a human face on the political turmoil and religious strife we call northern Ireland, and gives it a heart. Sadly, he can do no more.

Cal begins in violence, and ends in violence -- violence that benefits no one.

No one but the viewer, that is.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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