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MOVIE REVIEW : PORTRAITS OF ‘JOYCE’S WOMEN’

Times Staff Writer

“James Joyce’s Women” (at the Cineplex) is but one remarkable woman, Fionnula Flanagan, whose dark-haired beauty, sensuality and talent bring alive three of the key women in the great Irish writer’s life--and three others he created in his novels.

Flanagan, who is as irresistible as her name, played these six characters on stage in a production of her own devising. Now she has brought them to the screen in a triumph of fiery personality and shining intelligence over somewhat academic form. In drawing from the life and works of Joyce, Flanagan celebrates the soaring glories of his language with such passion that she saves her film from seeming heavily literary, a quality that plagued Joseph Strick’s 1967 film of Joyce’s “Ulysses.” (Burgess Meredith directed her on stage and Michael Pearce does here, but Flanagan’s the whole show, although there is a small supporting cast.)

We first meet Flanagan as Nora Barnacle Joyce, gray-haired but vibrant widow of the writer, as she is being interviewed by a young reporter (Timothy E. O’Grady) in her small home in Switzerland in 1951. The daughter of a Galway baker, Nora was 17 and uneducated when in 1904 Dublin she met Joyce, who must surely have seen a mirror of his own free spirit.

“We eloped, all right,” she says, “but didn’t get married for 27 years!” As the interview unfolds, it introduces us, in a natural way, to the other women. Moving away from Nora’s rich Irish lilt, Flanagan becomes Sylvia Beach, the chic American proprietor of Shakespeare and Co., the Paris bookstore where Beach held such an influential salon in the ‘20s. To an unseen gathering of notables Beach announces that she has succeeded in getting a Dijon publisher to bring out the controversial “Ulysses,” from which she reads a long passage. So complete is this first switch of characters that it takes a while to realize that it is also Flanagan who’s playing Beach.

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Later on, Flanagan is briefly yet another Joyce benefactress, Harriet Shaw Weaver, editor of the small but influential English literary journal The Egoist, who was responsible for getting Joyce’s first novel, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” published.

Flanagan’s greatest success, however, is as Molly Bloom, which in part has been foreshadowed by the sexual ecstasy she expresses as another character from “Ulysses,” Gerty MacDowell, a young girl who fantasizes about a stranger staring at her on the beach. But as Molly, Flanagan, in the famous stream-of-consciousness sequence, covers a breathtakingly broad emotional range.

Flanagan’s Molly, in fact, is a great summation of what it means to be a woman--what it means, indeed, to live. Nudity, sexual longing, bodily functions--all these are part of this portrait of Molly, fully integrated, never teasing or tasteless. Has ever there been so complete, yet so dignified, a picture of the total person on the screen?

Filmed in Ireland and France, “James Joyce’s Women” has an added plus in its appropriate locales and interiors. What makes it seem slightly academic, however, is O’Grady’s flat delivery as the interviewer, making his presence seem all the more a device.

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Possibly, O’Grady’s delivery is deliberately deadpan; at any rate, it surely makes Nora seem more of a tell-all self-starter than her character would seem to dictate. But on the plus side is the admirable way in which Flanagan has deftly made sure that the interview format allows the film to carry its own information.

Obviously, the more you bring to “James Joyce’s Women” the better, but it’s possible to imagine that it could be as much a pleasure to those being introduced to Joyce. But such reservations fade fast in contemplation of Flanagan and her splendid gallery: her Nora, who says she never read her husband’s books because she never could understand them, also insists, amazingly, that he knew nothing of women.

But “James Joyce’s Women” (rated an apt R) suggests that he surely knew--and loved--his wife.

‘JAMES JOYCE’S WOMEN’

A Universal release of a Rejoycing Co. presentation. Producer Fionnula Flanagan. Director Michel Pearce. Written and adapted by Flanagan from the life and works of James Joyce. Based on the stage production directed by Burgess Meredith. Co-producer Garrett O’Connor. Associate producers Patrick Flanagan, Ann Kirch. Camera John Metcalfe. Musical arrangements Noel Kelehan, Arthur Keating, Vincent Kilduff, Garrett O’Connor. Film editor Arthur Keating. Associate editor Timothy Palmer. With Fionnula Flanagan, Timothy E. O’Grady, Chris O’Neill, Tony Lyons, Paddy Dawson.

Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes.

MPAA-rated: R (under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian).


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