Circle of Friends

(Pat O'Connor, Ireland/USA, 1995)


I may be the only film buff on the planet with a fond memory of a minor American teen movie directed by Peter Hyams called Our Time (aka Death of Her Innocence [1974]).

It concerned a gang of schoolgirls in the mid '50s, and their first encounters with love and sex. A pretty, meek heroine saves herself for Mr Right and finds happiness, while her frumpy, unconventional friend hurls herself into some guy's oily arms and ends up (several plot moves later) stone cold dead.

There is the light trace of such a grim coming-of-age tale in Pat O'Connor's Circle of Friends. It is again the mid '50s, and three Irish girls leave their hometown of Knockglen to attend university in Dublin.

Bubbly Benny (superbly played by Minnie Driver) and her relationship with the sensitive lad Jack (Chris O'Donnell from Batman Forever [1995]) provide the main focus. Eve (Geraldine O'Rawe) is pale and unadventurous, while Nan (Saffron Burrows) is a sophisticated "hell cat".

The film, while it includes some highly dramatic moments, steers well clear of any tragic possibilities. Andrew Davies' script, adapted from Maeve Binchy's novel, keeps the tone light. It is almost a comedy of manners – a chronicle of a hundred small embarrassments, epiphanies and giggly pleasures experienced in the everyday social world. O' Connor's abundant spirit of populist generosity dries up only whenever a few rogue males, the easy villains of the piece, step into frame.

Documenting an era of shame, guilt and repression in all matters sexual, Circle of Friends itself tends to slip into some rather old-fashioned moralising. "Loose" girls like Nan face a miserable gauntlet of deception, abandonment and abortion for their transgressions; "nice" girls like Benny may squirm in frustration and experience a little heartbreak, but chastity serves them rather well by comparison. Only the marvellous final line of the film breaks this dour pattern.

A few minor matters mar the surface of this otherwise delightful, charming, modest film. Like virtually every movie about tertiary education (with the exception of The Paper Chase [1973]), we get not the slightest sense that these girls ever actually write, read or study. University is just the handy backdrop for parties and young love. The only class we see them attend appears to be a year-long exegesis of a saucy anthropological text titled The Sexual Life of Savages – which provides a rather heavy-handed way for the film to make its points.

Also, Circle of Friends is one of those annoying films in which the heroine is told repeatedly that, particularly in comparison with her conventionally gorgeous friend, she is plain, unglamorous and even an "ugly cow". And although the script is at pains to reveal to us Benny's "inner beauty", and to damn those who judge her harshly, it cannot but reinforce these absurd standards of physical worth.

MORE O'Connor: Inventing the Abbotts

© Adrian Martin July 1995

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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