The Last of the High Kings

(David Keating, Ireland/Denmark, 1996)


The Last of the High Kings, co-scripted by actor Gabriel Byrne, begins with the inauguration of one of those suspended, transitional, liminal periods we know well in tales of teenage life.

Frankie (Jared Leto) nervously sits his final school exam – and for the next few weeks, has to endure the agonising wait until his results arrive. But there is obviously a lot to experience in between: loss of virginity, brushes with politics and religions, holiday party blow-outs, the learning of life lessons ...

The setting is Dublin in 1977, as an important election approaches. Frankie is reasonably indifferent to this event, but his Ma (Catherine O'Hara) campaigns furiously while her husband (Byrne) wanders the globe in pursuit of his big break as an actor.

It is a typically ramshackle, dysfunctional family unit, but one that weathers some fierce storms through the force of mutual loyalty and love. Particularly distressing to Ma is Frankie's intense attraction to a pair of local Protestant girls.

The Last of the High Kings hesitates between being a wistful, coming-of-age chronicle like Circle of Friends (1995), and a more raucous, American-style teen movie. It suffers from this constant vacillation. Themes of burgeoning feminism, political disillusionment and the loss of innocence for a culture at large, symbolised by Elvis's death, are scantily treated.

Meanwhile, one constantly wishes that director David Keating could pick up the tempo or inject some vulgarity into the proceedings – a visual kick to match the energy contained in the Thin Lizzy songs liberally commandeered for the soundtrack.

But, whatever its shortcomings, the story has some very touching elements. The unrequited pining of young American Erin (Christina Ricci) for Frankie recalls such bittersweet romances of '60s cinema as Sundays and Cybèle (1962). Details of Frankie's awakening sexuality are vividly, sometimes graphically conveyed.

But, without a doubt, O'Hara is the biggest joy of this film. All at once idealistic, frustrated, loving and quite mad, she is the impossible mother par excellence. A highlight is when Ma berates her stuffy neighbours for their pompous British manners – all the while remaining oblivious to their protestations of Irish origin – and then orders her children to patriotically march up and down atop the fence adjoining the two properties.

© Adrian Martin November 1997

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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