by Michelle McGlynn
Director Thaddeus O’Sullivan is no stranger to taking on the Catholic church and its influence in Irish history, as his award winning film December Bride shows. In Stella Days, O’Sullivan takes us back to a time when the influence of the Catholic church in Ireland was beginning to wane ever so slightly in the minds of the people.
Father Daniel Barry (Martin Sheen) is the parish priest in Borrisokane, Co. Tipperary. Previously Barry had spent time studying in Rome and dearly wishes to return. He believes that Bishop Hegerty (Tom Hickey) is making the arrangements. However, the bishop has other ideas. In the hopes of maintaining the position the church holds, he wishes to build large scale churches which will dominate the landscapes of the various parishes. So it looks like Fr. Barry is in Borrisokane to stay, at least until he manages to raise enough money to fund the building of the new church. Barry is disheartened but uses this opportunity as an excuse to open the town’s first cinema. This cinema will screen educational films as well as the latest from Hollywood. Barry is himself an amateur film maker and has a great passion for all films. His modern, liberal views are met with resistance from the god fearing, traditional members of the community. The most prominent and outspoken of these is Brenden (Stephen Rea) who not only fears the “Hollywood filth” contained in movies, but any outside influences at all. Barry does find support and a kindred spirit in the new school teacher, Tim (Trystan Gravelle). The two men share their love of film and other ideals and form a friendship. Will Fr. Barry manage to open his cinema despite the opposition and if he does will it be to the town’s own detriment?
Stella Days is inspired by the memoir Stella Days: The Life and Times of a Rural Irish Cinema by Michael Doorley. It is set in the late 1950s and depicts a time of extensive change in Ireland which is evident as we watch the introduction of electricity to the rural town. O’Sullivan represents the clash of the old and new brilliantly with his characters. It is also refreshing to find a film which centres around a priest who is not tarred with the same brush as some members of the clergy and is instead depicted as a forward thinking, warm hearted man who has the best interests of his parish at heart.
The subplot which follows the socially unacceptable romance between Molly (Marcella Plunkett) and Tim seems a bit unnecessary in such a short film. The plot is of no real consequence to the bigger picture and perhaps the time might have been better used fleshing out the main storyline. Similarly, the story between Fr. Barry and Molly’s young son Joey (Joey O’Sullivan) is left unresolved. While their story provides insight into Barry’s past and how he became a priest, it clarifies a point which is already pretty clear to the audience. In the end, the story just feels like a loose end.
Martin Sheen was involved with Stella Days from its very inception having been given a copy of the novel when he visited Borrisokane, his mother’s birthplace. Sheen agreed to the role of Fr. Daniel Barry seven years ago, before there was even a script. Sheen, who is always a joy to watch, gives a warm performance filled with subtleties and good humour.
The supporting cast proves well able to keep up with the Hollywood legend. Marcella Plunkett and Welsh man Trystan Gravelle are the two who stand out among the supporting cast. Despite the superfluous nature of their love story you find yourself hoping that Molly will end up with Tim. Plunkett gains your sympathy as she struggles on her own while her alcoholic, ill-tempered husband works in England.
Tom Hickey’s Bishop Hegerty is amusing to behold. While Stephen Rea plays a character that is not altogether unfamiliar.
Stella Days is a simple, enjoyable film. It is interesting if only to appreciate how far Irish cinema has come in the past fifty years. Perhaps not up to the standards of Thaddeus O’Sullivan’s previous cinematic offerings, Stella Days is a pleasant wat