Friday May 7, 1999
Paul Quinn's "This Is My Father" is a beautiful, heart-wrenching film in which a Chicago high school history teacher (James Caan), in the grip of middle-age malaise, unexpectedly finds himself heading to Ireland in search of his birth father's identity. His quest in turn triggers a flashback in which a passionate romance collides tragically with the dictates of religion and class.
In a most affecting first feature, Quinn has created a film of considerable complexity and impact in a unique collaboration with his actor brother Aidan and cinematographer brother Declan; collectively, the Quinns represent a formidable array of talent. Caan's performance ranks among his finest, and a young Irish actress named Moya Farrelly is beguiling in her film debut.
A lonely widower, Caan's Kieran finds himself increasingly disconnected from his students. He is further depressed over his mother, Fiona (Francoise Graton), being felled by a stroke, left bedridden and mute, in the care of his hard-pressed divorced sister, Betty (Susan Almgren), who has a troubled teenage son, Jack (Jacob Tierney). When Kieran and Betty come across a photo of their mother as a young girl locked arm in arm with a farmer, along with a book of poems inscribed "Kieran," he decides that as soon as he can get away he should make a trip to his mother's native land, taking along Jack, who could also use a change of scenery.
And what gorgeous scenery awaits Kieran and Jack, who put up at a bed-and-breakfast in Fiona's hometown. Their elderly landlady (Moira Deady), who has a comically smarmy and greedy son (Colm Meaney), has plenty to tell Jack--as long as he's willing to cross her palm with silver. Still, what the woman, a consummate storyteller, has to say has the ring of truth.
Moving back to 1939, when the young, headstrong Fiona (Farrelly) has been sent home from school after "a bit of a run-in" with the nuns. Her mother (Maria McDermottroe) is an elegant snob, a widow assuaging her grief and loneliness with drink. When 17-year-old Fiona initiates a flirtation with the shy adopted son (Aidan Quinn, in a portrayal of much depth and intelligence) of tenant farmers who is easily twice her age (but most likely a virgin like herself), she sets in motion a great love and even greater disaster in a village presided over by a hellfire-and-damnation priest (Eammonn Morrissey) who doesn't hesitate to lecture individuals on the state of their morals from his pulpit. (Even worse is his sex-obsessed colleague, played by Stephen Rea).
Paul Quinn is more interested in expressing compassion for one and all than in passing judgment. Yet he conveys that, for all its warmth and charm, Fiona's village is no less oppressive, steeped in narrow-mindedness and ignorance. (An extraneous cameo by John Cusack jars but does not derail the film.) Gradually, the humor and lighthearted tone of the flashbacks turn darker and darker. Nonetheless, as the film comes full circle, Caan's Kieran finds meaning in his quest, as his nephew Jack, on a less intense level, has matured and regained focus upon meeting a local girl (Pauline Hutton), as lovely as his grandmother was in her youth.
"This Is My Father" is a rewarding film of healing and a most personal, impassioned work on the part of Paul, Aidan and Declan Quinn.
This Is My Father, 1999. R, for a scene of sexuality and brief language. A Sony Pictures Classics release. Writer-director Paul Quinn. Producers Nicolas Clermont, Philip King. Executive producers Elie Samaha, Kieran Corrigan; co-executive producers Aidan, Declan and Paul Quinn. Cinematographer Declan Quinn. Editor Glenn Berman. Music Donal Lunny. Production designer Frank Conway. Art director Claude Pare. Running time: 2 hours. Aidan Quinn as Kieran O'Day. James Caan as Kieran Johnson. Moya Farrelly as Fiona Flynn. Jacob Tierney as Jack.