This is My Father
directed by Paul Quinn
(Sony Pictures Classics, 1998)

Kieran Johnson is a burned-out history teacher from Chicago who decides to spend his spring break roaming the fields of County Galway, Ireland, searching for the father he never knew. His only clues are a photograph of his mother and a strange man standing next to an airplane; the name of the town his mother emigrated from; and the name she used when she lived there.

Johnson's search is complicated by the fact that he's accompanied by his nephew -- who's doing drugs, flunking out of school and driving his mother to distraction -- and haunted by thoughts of his own elderly mother, who lives in bed at his sister's house, all but paralyzed following a stroke.

That makes This is My Father a story within a story, or to be more accurate, a story within several stories. The problem is, the story works, the stories don't.

The story begins and ends on the eve of World War II in Kilruhen, a small town in western Ireland, where 17-year-old Fiona Flynn has just been sent home from boarding school for reasons that are only hinted at. She's not home long before she takes up with local farm hand Kieran O'Dea. The result is a scandal of Irish proportions.

It's revealed piecemeal to Johnson by a gypsy fortuneteller whose son runs the bed and breakfast where Johnson and his nephew are staying in County Galway. And it's touching in many ways, a message film as well as a love story, an intricately constructed lamentation on what man has done to man.

This is My Father is also blessed with an unusually talented cast; James Caan as Johnson; Aidan Quinn as O'Dea; Stephen Rea (The Butcher Boy) as local priest Father Flynn; Colm Meany (The Snapper, The Van) as the Kilruhen innkeeper; Brendan Gleeson (The General) as a local constable; John Cusack in a small but critical cameo as flying Life photographer Eddie Sharp; and Moya Farrelly as Greta Garbo groupie Fiona Flynn, the captain's daughter who's caught sleeping with the gardener.

It's also a labor of love for the Quinn brothers. Aidan's brother Paul wrote and directed it; his brother Declan photographed it. Unfortunately, it comes to the screen with all its labor pains intact: in an ironic twist that would scarcely be lost on the Irish, the baggage from the present weighs down the well-spun yarn from the past.

Quinn introduces a number of themes -- the nephew's domestic strife, mother Johnson's delicate condition -- that he never resolves. Worse, the present-day concerns interrupt the more compelling narrative from the past at the worst possible moments, just when they're beginning to become interesting.

This is My Father offers an attractive portrait of the Irish landscape, if not its inhabitants, and weaves some wonderful traditional music through its pub and dance sequences. But on the whole, it's an unsatisfying experience, an overdone, overlong film that gets off on the wrong foot and never quite gets back on track despite some complicated shuffling. The Quinns should have settled for less. Instead, their audience has to.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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