Small towns must be the same the world over, and the Redhills of County Cavan, Ireland, in "The Playboys," which opens today at the Rotunda, reminded me of nothing so much as the Anarene of Texas, America, in "The Last Picture Show". Both are bitter places, stewing in their own bubbling broth of envy and avarice and nosiness and lust, run by smug gentry and filled with kids who just ache to get out.
The movie indeed might be called "The Last Stage Show," because it's an account of the effect a small traveling theater troupe has on the place in the mid-'50s, just as the bland beams of television were about to mill most of the regional uniqueness out of such places forever. (The coming of TV is a subtext in both movies).
And just as Larry McMurtry escaped from such a burg in the Lone Star State, so did Shane Connaughton flee Redhills many years ago; he went on to a distinguished career as novelist and screenwriter (he wrote "My Left Foot" and received an Academy Award nomination) and this is his return.
Or is it his revenge? Redhills, when first we look in, is in the grip of a mystery it dearly wants solved and that demonstrates its pettiness: who is the father of beautiful Tara Macguire's baby? Tara (Robin Wright), proud and beautiful, sure isn't saying, even if she's bearded from the pulpit by the priest and one of her suitors uses a shotgun to spray his brains through the glens and moors of the countryside when she rejects him. Meanwhile, the bullying cop Hegarty (heavy jowled, artfully charmless Albert Finney) hangs around her, like a big tomcat in perpetual heat.
When the Playboys, surely Ireland's most ticky-tacky, ratty-tatty theatrical company, comes to town (in the repertoire: "Othello" and "Gone With the Wind"), and handsome Tom (Aidan Quinn) begins to pay court, the village's jealousies begin to agitate toward explosive tension.
Deftly, Connaughton introduces plot strands: the IRA puts in an appearance, Hegarty's envy begins to reach the boiling point, Tom's courtship of Tara turns to flame, Playboys' artistic director Freddy tries to stay out of trouble with the law, and so forth and so on. Somehow, he keeps it all it balance.
pTC The movie came to feel as if it were about 30 years too long, but for much of its running time it's charming without being condescending. Connaughton knows such places, even if he couldn't wait to get out. You sense, from the movie, he also couldn't wait to go back.
' 'The Playboys'
Starring Albert Finney and Robin Wright.
Directed by Gillies Mackinnon.
Released by Samuel Goldwyn.