Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel

CIRCLE OF FRIENDS (Ireland, 1994) ***. Directed by Pat O'Connor. Screenplay, Andrew Davies, from the novel by Maeve Binchy. Producers, Arlene Sellers, Alex Winitsky, Frank Price. Photography, Kenneth MacMillan. Editing, John Jympson. Production design, Jim Clay. Music, Michael Kamen. Cast: Minnie Driver, Geraldine O'Rawe, Chris O'Donnell, Alan Cumming, Saffron Burrows, Colin Firth, et al. A Savoy release. 112 min. Rated PG-13 (sex).

Erin go brach! Two Irish films in the same week (see review of "A Man of No Importance") confirm that the Irish film renaissance is doing quite well. For Ireland, with its rich tradition in literature and world-class actors, movies are a recent phenomenon.

Among the better-known : Irish director-writer Neil Jordan's British -produced "The Company of Wolves," "Mona Lisa," "The Crying Game" ; Jim Sheridan's all-Irish "My Left Foot" and part-Irish "In The Name Of The Father"; Gillies MacKinnon's American but essentially Irish "The Playboys"; Britisher Alan Parker's "The Commitments."

Pat O'Connor, director of "Circle of Friends," was the first filmmaker of the Irish New Wave to be noticed internationally with two excellent features: "Cal" (1984) and "A Month In The Country" (1987). Later he fizzled with two U.S. and one British products. This time, even though he has not come full circle, h is back to good form.

"A Man of No Importance" has Albert Finney. "Circle of Friends" has newcomer Minnie Driver. Both actors, the veteran and the rookie, are casting coups --and what makes the pictures.

Driver plays Benny (for Bernadette), one of three close friends, convent-schooled in a small town and introduced at their first Communion via a brief prologue set in 1949.

Cut to 1957. Eve (O'Rawe), the orphan raised by the nuns, gets a job at a pitiful 42 pounds a year in the manor home of Simon (Colin Firth), the local squire. Then the girls get reunited at Dublin's University. Eve is petite and observant; Benny Hogan is big, raw-boned, not beautiful but so full of character that she becomes totally appealing; Nan (Burrows) is gorgeous , knows it and will try to capitalize on it. Before long, each one has a first affair, virginal for Eve and Benny, not so for Nan who has calculatingly sets her sights on rich Simon.

The central romance is Benny's serious affair of the heart with gentle medical student Jack (Chris O'Donnell, with a decent accent) who is understandably captivated by her wonderful personality, sense of self-deprecating humor, unglamorous but abundant charm, intelligence, independence and other qualities.

As Jack's MD father tells him: " There's something to be said for those big, tall, soft girls." There's something to be said too for the many movies from English-speaking countries that unlike American films make heroines not of cover-girl beauties but of authentic, recognizable women.

Nan's affair with equally calculating Simon will gives the plot a chain of events that will affect her gravely and will also throw a temporary monkey-wrench into Benny's future.

Eve's adventure gets minimal treatment. It provides one of the film's big laughs when her boyfriend wins at checkers. Eve's inherited cottage thickens the plot, while she becomes the sleuth and Dea Ex Machina who straightens out a major mess.

An additional male character is Shawn (Alan Cumming), the clerk at the store of Benny's haberdasher father. A skinny, spying schemer with nauseating blarney, oily rat Shawn wants to marry Benny against her will in order to become a partner in the business.

The movie's realistic, descriptive first part revolves primarily around Benny. She is likably and thoroughly portrayed in a multiplicity of situations, sketches or episodes. At the same time, all the seeds of melodrama are planted in Part One.

These bloom full-strength in Part Two. The film becomes part soaper, part 19th century-style novel, part modern "women's" paperback. It comes complete with complications, ramifications, sudden events, planned seduction, malfeasance, a cynical lover, attempted rape, theft, major misunderstandings and other trappings.

All this does not hurt the picture. What does a bit is that throughout "Circle" there are some slow, sometimes dull moments that can engender mild impatience. For example, I found my attention wandering at times to matters like the uneven pronunciations of "Trobriand" by the various scholars in the story.

Even so, the total package is nicely observed. The background and its characters are interestingly, sharply and intelligently depicted. Jack, and especially Benny develop and mature in credible, endearing ways. The movie is well produced; the period is carefully reconstructed as well as the impact of Catholicism. Family relations are cleverly, succinctly and un-rhetorically woven in, without false notes. Sets and artifacts, and the use of1950s music are just right . The overall charm of "Circle of Friends" is undeniable.