Circle of Friends (Ireland/United States, 1995)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Circle of Friends is the motion picture equivalent of a dime store romance novel. It has all the requisite elements -- it's a period piece (the bulk of the story takes place in the late 1950s); boasts women with heaving bosoms and a young, virile man; and throws numerous contrived complications in the way of the star-crossed lovers. Frankly, though, if I wanted to watch a soap opera, I'd turn on the TV.

Taking place in a small village in Ireland, where "people have long memories", Circle of Friends starts out as a story of three girlhood companions -- Benny (Minnie Driver), Eve (Geraldine O'Rawe), and Nan (Saffron Burrows). For a short while, this film seems like it might be a pleasant, relaxed examination of friendship, until the trio head off to college in Dublin and meet dashing rugby star Jack Foley (Chris O'Donnell). From that point on, the movie becomes distressingly predictable, with nary a surprise to be found.

Of course, Benny and Jack are attracted to each other, but it takes a while -- and a tearful scene with Benny sitting alone at a dance -- before either is willing to admit it. No sooner have they gotten together than complications seek to pry them apart. Benny's father wants her to marry a local creep named Sean (Alan Cumming), but she intends to wed for love, not money. And Jack wants a little more sex than a good Catholic girl is willing to give. Meanwhile, Nan has become involved with a pedigreed Englishman (Colin Firth) and Eve is at work renovating a house willed to her by her dead parents.

Though the narrative is creatively barren, the film is nevertheless well-acted. Chris O'Donnell slips easily into the low-profile role of Jack, giving his least-forced performance to date. Minnie Driver brings a lot of spunk to her part, presenting a heroine who doesn't fit the model of a "typical" Hollywood beauty. If there's a reason to see Circle of Friends, it's for Driver's boundless energy, which enlivens a host of otherwise-insipid scenes.

Unfortunately, the movie's plot could have been scripted by anyone familiar with the most banal of romantic formulas. A lot of films, especially love stories, seek a level of comfort through predictability, but this one goes too far. Moments of originality are scarce. It's also apparent that Circle of Friends suffered in the translation from book to screenplay. The narrative has a sparse, bare-bones feel, and there are a couple of quick, "character building" sequences that try unsuccessfully to convey a sense of personality and motivation for several of the supporting players.

Despite some dryly funny moments, there isn't enough comedy to offset the pitiful dramatic structure and the virtual absence of genuine characterization. Generally, for a romantic comedy to succeed, at least one of three factors has to be in place: well-rounded, real-seeming people; strong chemistry between the leads; or a moderately-original story. Circle of Friends has none of these qualities, and stands as an example of how to mire a solid cast in a morass of mediocrity.

Circle of Friends (Ireland/United States, 1995)

Run Time: 1:43
U.S. Release Date: 1995-03-24
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1