There are few pleasures greater in moviedom than watching Albert Finney disappear into a character. In Suri Krishnamma's A Man of No Importance, he does it again with such apparent ease that we forget his rollicking Tom Jones, the boozy diplomat of Under the Volcano, even the devastated classics professor of The Browning Version--a role Finney re-created only last year.
For now, we think of him only as one Alfie Byrne, a superficially jolly Dublin bus conductor who entertains his passengers each morning with recitations from Oscar Wilde but who dies a little each evening from loneliness. The time is the early 1960s, and Mother Church has its familiar death grip on the neighborhood. But Finney manages to overwhelm that social cliche, along with a couple of others. For one thing, he gives the old every-Irishman-a-poet bit a hard jolt of satire; for another, he puts a fresh face on the image of the aging closet queen who's continually tormented by the mores of his time and place.
The object of Alfie's unexpressed affection is Robbie Fay (Rufus Sewell), the handsome young driver of the Number 34, but that's only part of the story. As Barry Devlin's poignant, funny screenplay would have it, Alfie's sole outlet is the enduring image of his outrageous playwright/hero and the luckless community-theater group he's thrown together from his loyal passengers. These rank amateurs never actually see a play "go up," but Alfie never quits: This year he's trying to mount Wilde's scandalous Salome in the local parish hall. But when Carney the butcher (Michael Gambon), Alfie's straitlaced sister (Brenda Fricker) and the pinched priest (Mick Lally) get wind of it, there's hell to pay.
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There's also a coming-out party for Alfie-- with tragicomic results.
Once more, Finney's in a world of his own. Director Krishnamma, an Anglo-Indian from the Isle of Wight, minds the period detail and adds some winsome touches (as when he visually links a pig's head in a butcher shop with John the Baptist's biblical decapitation), but Finney commands the action so thoroughly here that we are aware of almost no one--and nothing--else.
There's a wonderful scene in which Alfie's good nature, offended at last, turns to anger and defiance: He makes for a rough-trade pub dressed in dandy's finery, like Wilde himself, and the little hitch in Finney's gait speaks of both pride and uncertainty. (The man can do more with a gesture than God, and as much with a line as Olivier.) Unmasked at last in "the love that dare not speak its name," poor repressed Alfie has but to say: "My hands are innocent of affection" to level the house. Classically trained but stinking of the streets, this actor puts us in his pocket, and there we stay.
The supporting cast, which also includes Tara Fitzgerald as Salome's leading lady, adds local color and shading, but they're no match for Finney and his Alfie Byrne. Here's a man in love with "ahhrrt"--and all of us with him.
A Man of No Importance. Screenplay by Barry Devlin. Directed by Suri Krishnamma. With Albert Finney, Brenda Fricker, Tara Fitzgerald and Rufus Sewell.