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‘The Playboys’ (PG-13)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 01, 1992

Gillies MacKinnon's "The Playboys" is a movie of surprising charm and resonance. Written by Shane Connaughton (who co-wrote "My Left Foot") and Kerry Crabbe, the film has modest dramatic intentions; it's small, tightly focused and even a little old-fashioned, but it blossoms in unexpected profusion. It's a lovely bouquet of a film.

The picture takes place in 1957 in a small Irish village that has been scandalized by the birth of an illegitimate child. The mother of the child, Tara (Robin Wright), is a ravishing, strong-willed woman whose spirit is too large and too unconventional for the parochial manners of her tiny community. Her son is a particular affront to the townspeople because she refuses to admit her guilt and redeem herself by naming the father. The father's identity becomes the town's shameful secret, a blight that, according to the local parish priest (Alan Devlin), will bring the displeasure of the Lord down upon the entire village.

MacKinnon, who makes his feature debut here, shows a sure-handed touch with the reactions of the townspeople to Tara's proud impudence, turning them into a kind of tongue-clucking and sometimes comic chorus. There's restraint too in his refusal to portray Tara as a symbol of liberated womanhood. Her actions are personal, not political.

The film's main conflict is between Tara and the local constable, Sgt. Hegarty (Albert Finney), a reformed alcoholic who is desperately in love with her. Finney is a grand, imposing actor and he brings a tragic emotional weight to Hegarty's ardor. A brooding figure with a dark, haunted expression on his drink-ravaged face, Hegarty is obsessed with Tara, coming to her house every night begging her to marry him. It's a stirring, brilliantly modulated performance by a great actor.

Hegarty is a time bomb waiting to go off, and when one of the players in a traveling band of actors known as the Playboys begins to court Tara, his jealous fuse is lit. The arrival of the acting company adds an enchanting new ingredient to the film. These roving thespians are irresistible scoundrels with a seemingly bottomless supply of self-dramatizing blarney, and MacKinnon is clearly smitten with their shabby backstage intrigues.

The romance between Tom (Aidan Quinn) and Tara catches fire slowly; her past has made her suspicious of men, and Hegarty's intrusions provide an added obstacle. Tara, who scrapes by as a seamstress, isn't really looking for a man to complete her life; she stands solidly on her own two feet, even going so far as to smuggle supplies across the border to members of the Irish Republican Army. As Tara, Wright is a revelation; she conveys her character's strength without the slightest trace of effort. The role is one of the best written for a woman in recent memory and a great showcase for Wright; her performance marks the emergence of a major new talent.

Tara is heavy in spirit, and Tom's boyish presence adds a bit of much-needed leavening. Tom doesn't take himself too seriously, and his self-effacing pranks -- plus his refusal to take no for an answer -- finally win Tara over. Still, they must deal with Hegarty, who is so determined to undermine their affair that he throws Tom in jail for conspiring with the IRA. The volatile dynamics between the three protagonists in the film's last section snowball with tremendous force; there's a feeling that anything could happen. The Playboys' production of "Othello" provides a frightening sense of foreboding. Hegarty's jealousy gradually strips him of all dignity and restraint, and when his rage finally explodes he staggers around in drunken pain like a wounded bull, destroying everything in his path.

What MacKinnon and his collaborators have created here bears a resemblance to John Ford's Irish tales, but on a smaller scale and without the cloying leprechaun sentimentality. The film is rich in character -- there's a great part for Milo O'Shea as the acting company's manager -- but MacKinnon doesn't turn his Irishmen into precious eccentrics. Nor does he impose a facile upbeat ending. This skilled director keeps the elements of romance and tragedy in balance, and the result is a pure delight.

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