Bernard Hill as John Joe
Colm Meaney as Jimmy
Andrea Corr as Anne
Shaun Evans as Teddy
Charlotte Bradley as Maisie
Philip Barantini as Alex
Stephen Brennan as Miko
Frank Twomey as Roger
Eaomonn Owens as Pat
Brendan O’Hare as Brendan
A warm, light-hearted comedy set in the world of traditional Irish music, “County Clare” is a real treat!
In the late ’60s, two brothers return to their hometown for the annual All-Ireland finals for traditional Irish Ceili (folk) music. Jimmy (Colm Meany) and John Joe (Bernard Hill) will do anything to keep the other one’s band from winning the contest, but amidst the proceedings, new revelations come out about their past, as the beautiful violin player from John Joe’s band (Andrea Corr) falls for the flute player in Jimmy’s band.
Director John Irvin is best known for war films like Hamburger Hill and Dogs of War, so it’s a surprise to see his name on a movie like The Boys & Girl From County Clare, which is about as far as removed from his other films as is possible. It’s more impressive that he does a better job with this warm comedy than he has with other forays into other genres.
The film’s first twenty minutes sets up the story with the road to the All-Ireland festival as Jimmy returns home to Ireland after twenty years spent in Liverpool. His band is mostly made up of young musicians influenced by the more fashionable hometown band, The Beatles. The ferry trip is rough enough before they must deal with an unrelenting customs agent who has been paid off by Jimmy’s brother John Joe to keep them from making it to the competition. Jimmy gets a bit of payback by stealing the tires from the van, hindering John Joe and his hometown favorites, which includes his star fiddle player Anne.
Competition is fierce at the Ceili festival, as bands from all over the globe compete. Amidst the music, we learn more about the characters and their relationships, and it doesn’t take long for a romance to develop between Anne and Jimmy’s flute player Teddy, something which neither brother will tolerate. Of course, the big question is why Jimmy left County Clare in the first place, which has something to do with his relationship with Anne’s mother, the piano player in John Joe’s band, who never told Anne who her father was. It’s not too hard to figure out where things go from there, but despite the few obvious and predictable situations, there are enough surprises to keep things interesting. All of the subplots come together into a warm and touching ending that wraps things up without seeming overly sentimental.
Although the script is exceptional, much of “County Clare” might not have worked if not for its two great lead actors: best known as King Theoden from The Lord of the Rings movies, Bernard Hill brings as much pop and circumstance to the role of John Joe, while Colm Meaney is quickly turning into the Irish Gene Hackman with his ability to be gruff and comical at the same time. (The hairstyle and mustache he sports does little to dissuade those comparisons.) It’s magic when these two great actors are on screen together, as they play off each other so well, trading barbs with impeccable timing.
Charlotte Bradley also standouts as Maisie, who tends to be at the center of the movie’s more dramatic moments, while Andrea Corr of Ireland’s world-famous pop group The Corrs, does a fine job in her acting debut. While more seasoned actress may have been more convincing as Anne, there’s certainly talent bubbling under, and Corr’s lack of experience makes the character more believable.
Obviously, the film’s biggest appeal comes from the music, which will have your foot tapping from beginning to end. The soundtrack and setting does a lot to set this apart from other British comedies, and it greatly impacts the tone and feel. If nothing else, County Clare is a great primer to learning more about Ceili music and the discipline it takes to master the art form.
Irvin’s contribution is quite evident, not only in the great performances he pulls from the cast, but also because of how good the movie looks compared to similar films. His choice to use close-ups during a lot of the dialogue scenes seems odd, but otherwise, the movie is a fine achievement from a highly underrated director.
The Bottom Line:
A wonderful film that harks back to memorable Brit comedies of the ’90s like The Full Monty and Waking Ned Devine, there are enough fun characters, laughs and romance that even those who weren’t keen on traditional Irish music before seeing “County Clare,” will be won over by the end.