"Circle of Friends," set mostly in 1957, is about the coming of age of three best friends--Irish schoolgirls from the small town of Knockglen who go on to attend college in Dublin. It's sweet and winsome and a little pat, done with just enough feeling to lift it out of its class. The tang and rumpus of Irish conviviality come across without a lot of blarney. The Irish eyes in "Circle of Friends" are smiling--not grinning.
Bernadette (Minnie Driver), or, as she is called, "Benny"--she narrates the film--is a "plain Jane" who retains the frizzy, self-absorbed look of a grade school savant . She's a winning combination of wide-eyed and down-to-earth. Her best friend, Eve (Geraldine O'Rawe), is as excited as Benny is about ditching the small-town life with its petty tyrannies and repressions. Their movement to Dublin is dramatized as both a sexual and an intellectual awakening: They spend most of the movie tugging at the confines of their Catholic upbringing.
Nan (Saffron Burrows), the third friend from grade school, is glamorous and ambitious. While Benny has her eye set on the school's rugby star Jack (Chris O'Donnell), Nan is after more seasoned game: Simon (Colin Firth), a upper-crust layabout who doesn't, at first, suspect her meager upbringing.
Directed by Pat O'Connor and scripted by Andrew Davies from the Maeve Binchy novel, "Circle of Friends" doesn't overextend its passion. Although the movie reputedly has more sexual content than the novel, it's still a rather chaste and lulling sexuality. The filmmakers don't get into the overpowering rush of feelings that these girls, particularly Benny and Nan, must have been experiencing.
O'Connor doesn't try to draw us inside their whirligig tensions or make us see the world the way they might have seen it. O'Connor is primarily an actor's director, not a visual stylist, and he's content to let his performers work up their own little universes for us.
Since the performers are so appealing, the film stays involving. The scenes between Benny and Jack have a babes-in-the-woods sweetness. Even the fact that both O'Donnell and Driver are struggling with their Irish accents gives their confabs a sweetness. (Only O'Rawe among the leads is Irish.)
Even though the filmmakers are attempting rather too strenuously to make this story "timeless," one of its chief charms is the way it fits into a particular time and place--Ireland in the late '50s.
The despicable people in this movie's universe are small-time innocents as well, like Sean (Alan Cumming), the weaselly would-be heir to Benny's father's business, who makes Eddie Haskell seem like Mr. Sincerity. The most powerful scene in the movie comes when Sean drops his comic conniver act and moves to ravish Benny--it's as if beneath Sean's worminess was a rattlesnake.
"Circle of Friends" needs more of those chordal shifts; it needs to be more startling about the ways in which people are torn up by their emotions. But it's satisfying anyway.
* MPAA rating: PG-13, for sexual content. Times guidelines: It includes discussion of abortion, premarital sexuality.
* At the AMC Century 14, 10250 Santa Monica Blvd . , Century City Shopping Center; (310) 553-8900.