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‘Circle of Friends’

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 24, 1995


Pat O'Connor
Minnie Driver;
Chris O'Donnell;
Geraldine O'Rawe;
Saffron Burrows
Children under 13 should be accompanied by a parent

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In the small Irish village where Pat O'Connor's sweetly romantic "Circle of Friends" begins, good girls don't think about sex -- not in 1957, that is, and not without reporting it promptly to their parish priest. But for Benny (Minnie Driver), the sturdy young woman at the center of this pleasingly old-fashioned coming-of-age story, being a good girl becomes harder and harder with each passing day.

A brainy girl with a wiry mass of black curls and full-moon face, Benny has always been self-conscious around boys, preferring to remain somewhat hidden in the shadow of her more extroverted, lifelong friends, Nan (Saffron Burrows) and Eve (Geraldine O'Rawe). Then, on the first day of classes at Trinity College in Dublin, Nan introduces Benny to Jack (Chris O'Donnell), the handsome captain of the rugby team and, suddenly, all her convent training seems to vanish in a rush of infatuation.

The three friends are forced to deal with the moral implications of their budding sexuality. For the ambitious, manipulative Nan, a long-stemmed siren with Lauren Bacall eyes, men are simply a means to an end. Hoping to pull herself out of the working-class squalor of her past, Nan latches onto Simon (Colin Firth), a wealthy Protestant cad who deflowers her, then tosses her over when she becomes pregnant.

The brassy, level-headed Eve is more creative -- not to mention eccentric -- in finding ways to explore her desires for her boyfriend (Aidan Gillen). But the spotlight here is on Benny, who, as a result of Jack's attentions, is transformed from a clumsy, uncertain girl into a self-reliant young woman. Still, the metamorphosis is not without its difficulties. Benny's father, who runs a small, struggling haberdashery back home, has made a deal with his clerk (the reptilian Alan Cummings) that seems to include her as part of a package making him a partner in the business.

The path that O'Connor and writer Andrew Davies (working from Maeve Binchy's novel) take through these difficulties is at times facile and simplistic, but then "Circle of Friends" is unabashedly nostalgic for a time when simple solutions might actually work. It's not a challenging movie or an original one, but it does have its pleasures -- most notably a radiant, soulful debut performance from Driver, who saves "Circle of Friends" from being merely an Irish ugly duckling story.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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