Pat O'Connor's "Fools of Fortune" is a passionate, mystifyingly awkward bit of filmmaking. The picture, which is set during the Irish War for Independence, a time when the English sent in their most notoriously ruthless troops, unveils its story with telling, evocative images of unrestrained, yearning intensity. The devastations of hate are O'Connor's primary subject, and his ardor carries a quality of rapt obsessiveness.

Unfortunately O'Connor, who also directed "Cal" and "A Month in the Country," has a stronger command of feeling than he has of sense. In terms of narrative, "Fools of Fortune" could hardly be more frustrating or incoherent. O'Connor's storytelling style intentionally entangles the present and past; memory and the pull of the past is its secondary topic, but the resulting muddle couldn't have come about by design.

The first scenes convey to us the nearly Edenic temper of the life of the Quinton family at their lavish estate in rural Kilneaugh. Working from the novel by William Trevor, O'Connor creates an alluring atmosphere of enlightened gentility. The elder Quinton (Michael Kitchen) presides over an extended clan of aunts, defrocked priests, maids and workers with his English wife (Julie Christie), and their regard for each other verges on the worshipful.

Most of this information comes to us through the eyes of the Quintons' son, Will (played compellingly as a boy by Sean McClory), who watches the goings-on of the house with open-eyed curiosity. This section of the film exerts a forceful hold on the viewer. As the lad clambers through the branches of an immense tree, he is tutored in Latin by a priest (Tom Hickey), who tells him that the subject is important because "the past is always in the present." Though the importance of this statement is not immediately felt, it soon will be.

Already we've been given glimpses of a tortured young man in his twenties who carries within him the painful memory of a beautiful lost love named Marianne (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio). The young man, as it turns out, is the grown-up Will (Iain Glen), who is attempting to escape from his past through drink and isolation, and doing a fairly sorry job of it. The source of his torment is a dark night when the English troops burned down the estate, killing his father and his two younger sisters. Up until this point the disruptions of the narrative fabric are merely a minor, though baffling, irritant. Afterward, though, the continuity is continually broken, leaving us adrift in time and place.

For the rest of the film, the main relationship is the one that springs up between Will and Marianne, who fall in love while she is visiting Will and his mother some years after their tragedy. Will's mother has never recovered from her sorrow; drinking constantly, she does nothing but rehash the events of that awful night.

The movie has a gifted cast. Christie, in particular, gives a full-bodied complexity to her character's dementia; her unraveling is a pitiable sight, and all the more so because of her charm before the fall. Some steps are missing, though, in the curve of the character's life -- in all the characters' lives, in fact -- and we feel cheated by the elisions. As the grown-up Will, Glen has a magnificent face for the camera; he has some of Peter O'Toole's sensitive handsomeness, and he plays the older, ravaged Will as if his heart were wrapped in barbed wire. As Marianne, Mastrantonio is a ravishing exotic among these Irish and English faces, but her singularity perfectly suits the character, who for Will becomes an idealized figure of almost maddening intensity.

The events in the movie's second half pile on top of one another, without order or meaning; even the emotional pull that was so vivid earlier on is lost. And by this time the characters' motives seem strange and ungrounded; we don't feel as if we know them any longer. What's even more perplexing is the strange turn toward a kind of political mysticism that takes place late in the film. Somehow Marianne and Will's daughter, Imelda, who is descended from an Irish heroine whose ghost is said to haunt the lake near the family home, is meant to embody the spirit of the revolution. With her dark eyes, she stares out at us as if she were possessed by some higher destiny -- or maybe she is the ghost's earthly incarnation. Either way, the film makes a muddle both of its politics and its personal relationships. And either way, we're lost.

Fools of Fortune, at the Key, is rated PG-13.