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Saving Wales

This boy's faith is in your face.

Those who spend Sunday morning in church -- or every morning watching The 700 Club -- will likely embrace the new Welsh film Taliesin Jones as an affirmation of Christian faith. Agnostics, drunkards and horse players will probably see it as evangelical propaganda.

Never the twain shall meet.

By any reckoning, this sweet, well-meant fable in which Boy Meets God, Boy Loses God and Boy Gets God Back arrives at an interesting moment in the battle for the peculiar, but lucrative, realm of pop spirituality. Judging by book sales and box-office receipts, the ubiquitous Harry Potter and his fellow wizards are currently duking it out with Frodo the Hobbit and his pals -- at least until the next wave of Star Wars icons joins the fray. The bookish, twelve-year-old farm boy who gives Taliesin Jones its name probably doesn't have enough firepower to compete with these major heroes of mass-market hocus-pocus, but he does provide a straitlaced alternative for those who don't care to mix sorcery or space travel with their true beliefs. Welsh writer Rhidian Brook, from whose novel this has been adapted, certainly doesn't. Neither does director Martin Duffy, who comes from the soft-focus-and-soaring-violins school of moviemaking.

He's a believer: John-Paul Macleod gets roughed up in Taliesin Jones.
He's a believer: John-Paul Macleod gets roughed up in Taliesin Jones.

When first we see Little Tal, who is portrayed by a doe-eyed Welsh sprite named John-Paul Macleod, he's asking typical preteen questions ("Who am I?" "Is the story of Adam and Eve true?") and, as if to establish his credentials as a bright and curious lad, reading Animal Farm. Otherwise, he's got troubles. His mum (a rather too-glamorous redhead played by Geraldine James) has suddenly left farm and family for a new life in the city. Tal's older brother, John (Matthew Rhys), is insolent and impatient with him. His beleaguered father (Jonathan Pryce) seems as bewildered by his younger son as he is by the departure of his wife. At school, the other kids call Tal "Worm," and the class bully pounds on him.

What's an unhappy boy to do?

In the absence of Billy Elliot's solution, which was ballet dancing, Taliesin Jones goes looking for divine inspiration in the verdant hills of Wales. It doesn't take long to find it. As it happens, Tal's piano teacher, a kindly old man named Billy Evans (the late Ian Bannen) doubles as a faith healer. Once the boy sees Billy lay hands on crumpled Mrs. Willis and sees Mrs. Willis rise out of her chair, bad back suddenly cured, he's hooked. When Billy magically banishes the embarrassing warts on Tal's hands, the boy's doubly hooked. Never mind that any piano student on the face of the earth would jump at the chance to take lessons from, well, Bill Evans. The old guy has promised that if Tal keeps practicing the piano, he will teach him to perform miracles.

That's all the kid has to hear. At school he founds a mini-cult called "the believers," who try to cure a classmate of diabetes during recess. He starts questioning his parents about their faith (or rather, their lack of it) and holds forth at the dinner table about the number of seeds in a pomegranate -- as set forth in the Bible. Naturally, some viewers will see this as the little hero's spiritual enlightenment, others as the desperation of an emotionally distraught boy. In any event, our playground messiah must next weather the inevitable crisis of faith that comes with all such dramas. When Billy Evans, his inspiration and surrogate father, suddenly dies, Tal is ready to chuck it all. "It's too hard to believe," the disillusioned twelve-year-old announces.

Well, don't count on it. Before our ship sails for home and the credits roll, plucky Taliesin Jones not only has regained his faith, but has spread it to everyone in his orbit -- even, incredibly, to the schoolyard bully who has long been his tormentor. You suspect that not even Harry Potter could pull that one off, no matter how many books he's sold.

 
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