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‘Far and Away’

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 22, 1992


Ron Howard
Tom Cruise;
Nicole Kidman;
Thomas Gibson;
Robert Prosky;
Barbara Babcock;
Colm Meaney;
Eileen Pollock;
Michelle Johnson
Children under 13 should be accompanied by a parent

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"Far and Away," Ron Howard's broad-shouldered saga about Irish immigrants in America, is the director's attempt to step into the cinematic shoes of directors John Ford and David Lean. And, certainly, he's stepped into something with this sprawling, old-fashioned melodrama. Though the film is pictorially stunning and at times diverting, for the most part it's a lumbering white elephant of a movie. Think of it not so much as "The Quiet Man" or "Ryan's Daughter," but as an epic Irish Spring commercial.

Tom Cruise is the one who works up the manly aroma here as Joe Donnelly, an impoverished Irishman who struggles heroically to make a living as a tenant farmer on the small parcel of rocky land his family leases from a wealthy landlord (Robert Prosky). It's the 1890s, and most of the men in this ramshackle western Irish village have been beaten down in the long struggle with their greedy bosses. Joe is still young, though, and full of spirit; he remembers what his father told him before passing away -- that a man was nothing without land; that "land was a man's very soul." This is Joe's dream: to settle down on his own piece of land. But Ireland is tough on dreamers, and before Joe can even bury his father, his cottage is burned down by the landlord's manager (Thomas Gibson), and Joe treks off to take his revenge.

In this opening section, the events in Bob Dolan's script tumble out in quick succession, like a narrative avalanche, and with pretty much the same logic. Almost before you can blink, Joe is on his way to America with the landlord's ravishing, modern-thinking daughter, Shannon (Nicole Kidman). Shannon, who feels suffocated by the mores of her social station, entices Joe with an ad for the great Oklahoma land rush. But once the pair -- who can barely tolerate the sight of each other -- reach Boston, their plans run aground. Without money, they are forced to work as menial laborers, banking their pennies until they can save up enough to head West.

The movie's second section, in which Joe becomes a renowned prizefighter while Shannon plucks chickens, is as moribund as the first was swift. Though one catastrophe piles on top of another -- you can't really say that nothing happens -- Howard ("Backdraft") can't seem to get the plot in gear. Drunk with his minor celebrity, Joe becomes the darling of a corrupt Boston ward boss (Colm Meaney) and forgets about his destiny out West. There's so much bare-knuckled brawling in this middle section, in fact, that for a time the film devolves into a sort of antiquarian "Rocky," with Shannon playing Adrian to his Irish stallion.

Still, though Shannon and Joe share a room in one of the ward boss's whorehouses, they are not lovers. Posing as brother and sister, they spar and bicker in the classic manner of '30s lovers -- as foreplay. In part, Joe's fighting is seen as his way of sublimating his increasingly pressurized sexual feelings for Shannon. Dramatically, the whole film builds to the inevitable moment of consummation between Cruise and Kidman (who are also romantic partners off the screen), but the courtship is so protracted that we ultimately don't care.

That's assuming that we cared much in the first place. "Far and Away" is such a doddering, bloated bit of corn, and its characters and situations so obviously hackneyed, that we can't give in to the story and allow ourselves to be swept away. For his part, Cruise has never seemed more lightweight; his job is to embody the virtues of a larger-than-life Hollywood movie star, and yet he has never appeared more inadequate to the task. I kept thinking I was watching the second incarnation of Christopher Reeve.

As Shannon, Kidman at least brings some ferocity to her performance, even if the character's gumption is of the canned variety. But her forcefulness makes her co-star's work appear all the more paltry. And that goes for most of the other actors too; their costumes seem to be playing them.

The final section of the film, in which Joe and Shannon rediscover each other out West, is a disaster. With his expansive shots of the rolling plains, Howard must have wanted to evoke the spirit of "Dances With Wolves," but the narrative is so rushed, and the scenes so haphazardly slapped together, that the film's climax seems perfunctory. There's no feeling in it. Howard fails to deliver on both the smaller and larger satisfactions of the form he's attempted; he doesn't give us the sense of the landscape or the people in it.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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