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BEYOND BLARNEY

In recent years, visiting moviemakers have recast Ireland as a kind of cultural theme park packed with nostalgic folk wisdom exhibits, ongoing political tragedy rides and postcard views of verdant countryside. In this fantasyland, picturesque locals loose torrents of reheated Yeats in lilting brogues. At night everyone settles in at a raucous pub for boozy camaraderie and fireside stories. Ruddy Father O'Toole drops by to pass the basket.

Real life seems to have been sacrificed for the sake of stock ethnic sentimentality.

At first glimpse, John Irvin's Widows' Peak, too, seems to embrace every Irish cliche since Coyle kissed the Blarney Stone. In the mist-shrouded village of Kilshannon in the 1920s, an imperious dowager called Mrs. Doyle Counihan (Joan Plowright, perfectly cast) oversees an enclave of gossiping widows with iron resolve. The mysterious misfit among them is the poor but plucky spinster Miss O'Hare (Mia Farrow), who grows roses and has begun keeping company with the dull local dentist.

Kilshannon's delicate equilibrium is suddenly upset by the arrival of a glamorous English war widow named Edwina Broome (Natasha Richardson), who almost immediately sets out to enthrall Mrs. Doyle Counihan's ineffectual son Godfrey. The plot thickens with murmurs about Edwina's past and, then, dark suspicions of "morder." Almost everyone in town has a secret, and no one can quite explain Miss O'Hare's seething hostility for the newcomer in town.

Here is Irish sexual repression and Irish provincialism in a nutshell, the movie first seems to say, neatly packaged for the export market.

Happily, all this local intrigue and scandal come salted with whimsy (which you might expect) and braced with dark humor (which you might not). Irish playwright Hugh Leonard, whose witty Broadway hit Da came to the screen a few years ago with Martin Sheen and Barnard Hughes, has here crafted not just a mystery but a shaggy-dog story. With gusto he tweaks the nose of the powers that be, turns romantic desire into a comic shambles and captivates us all the way with well-timed twists and turns.

Irish Catholics will have to forgive the observation that Widows' Peak resembles not only past Irish screen romps but the highly civilized comedies Britain's Ealing Studios turned out in the late Forties and Fifties. Like The Lavender Hill Mob, a spoof on larceny, or Kind Hearts and Coronets, a pioneering black comedy about serial murder, this nimble comedy/mystery features sublime acting, a touch of farce and a firm grasp of the irrationalities of ordinary domestic life. The fellow at the helm is versatile director Irvin, whose work has ranged from tough action movies like The Dogs of War and Hamburger Hill to the absurd comedy Turtle Diary.

Among Peak's several glories, the liberation of Mia Farrow is a particular pleasure. Over the course of thirteen movies with Woody Allen, her screen persona had been reduced to a bundle of tics and neuroses--Allen's mirror image--so it's nice to see her spread her wings and breathe freely again. As Miss O'Hare, a country woman somehow wronged and keen to take revenge, Farrow employs an acceptable brogue (her mother was Maureen O'Sullivan, after all), and she sketches in just enough detail about her pivotal character to keep us guessing. The scene in which Miss O'Hare and the flirtatious Edwina scuffle over a raffle prize in a country pub is a gem, as is the lively regatta scene, where rival boats go bump in the afternoon, setting the stage for a tricky homicide plot.

Plowright, the magisterial stage star and centerpiece of Enchanted April, is splendid, too. Gotten up in black widow's weeds and high dudgeon, this queen commands a matriarchy of spies, eavesdroppers and rumormongers whose husbands are all in the graveyard and whose minds are all on everyone else's business. When Richardson's Americanized seductress cruises into town in her roadster, the women are appalled by her brazenness and delighted by the chance to make mischief.

In such an atmosphere, the movie's men must remain content as comic foils. Adrian Dunbar, late of The Crying Game and Hear My Song, is perfect as Godfrey, Mrs. Doyle Counihan's dithering fool of a son, and Jim Broadbent is just right as the small-minded dentist with a romantic streak. In Kilshannon, he tells us, "widows are as plentiful as freckles on a redhead." So are tall tales, but before Widows' Peak can drop over the edge into sheer blarney, the moviemakers rescue it with infusions of wit, riddle and cunning. Here's a buoyant, beautifully acted entertainment with a whiff of murder in it--just the ticket for a fair summer's eve.

 
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