FILM / A nosebagful of saccharin: Adam Mars-Jones on Into the West, Elenya

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The Independent Culture
This week's British films are full of unsavoury national stereotypes: hard-drinking but visionary Irishmen, Welsh people prone to depression and incest. But before we attempt to report Into the West and Elenya to the cultural wing of the Race Relations Board, we'd better admit that these are not mischievous portrayals from outside, but self-stereotypes.

There's a shot early on in The Commitments, Alan Parker's recent box-office hit, of a horse on a Dublin housing estate, either in the lift or in one of the flats themselves. It's just a bit of peripheral blarney, and it works fine. In a few seconds it's gone, which is frankly why it works. But what Jim Sheridan, who wrote the script for Into the West (PG), and Michael Pearce, who wrote the story on which it was based, have done is to take that moment and build an entire feature film on it. They seem to detect some fine truth in the image - the noble beast, the dingy city. They embellish this piece of sweet nonsense as if it were the Book of Kells.

The white horse represents the imagination, the tower block represents brute reality. So far, so O level. But the horse also stands for the glories of the nomadic life. The main characters of the film are all Travellers, though some of them have strayed from the old way and put down shallow roots. Fine. Now comes the tricky part. The white horse is also the mother of two small boys, returned from the dead in this handy disguise to heal the hearts of the living.

In the early days of Hollywood, when established writers were being hired wholesale by a new industry hungry for ideas and prestige, a script was commissioned from the Belgian symbolist Maurice Maeterlinck. The mogul who had contrived this coup was seen to burst out of his office after the script was delivered, eyes staring, cigar awry, and exclaiming: 'My God] The hero's a bee]' There must have been similar scenes when the idea for Into the West was first pitched - 'My God, the love interest has hooves and a tail]' - unless the writers had some special oofle-dust to daub on the eyes of the moneymen.

The oofle-dust in this particular case, though, the blinding potion, can only have been the international success of My Left Foot, which Sheridan wrote and directed. Mike Newell, who gave family tension such bitterness and edge in The Good Father a few years ago, has been brought in to stiffen this piece of Hibernian confectionery, but there's no giving a hard edge to a custard.

Gabriel Byrne as the boys' father does what he can. It doesn't help that he is supposedly estranged from his father-in-law, to whom the miraculous horse first appears, because Traveller superstition contributed in some way to his wife's death in childbed - in some way, but we're never told in what way, exactly. When there are crucial holes in the script, no amount of acting conviction can fill them up.

The moment Ellen Barkin appears, playing the biped female lead, you find yourself wondering what she's doing in this film. How was the conversation with her agent avoided? The incredulous conversation that goes 'You want my client to do what] You want her to learn a Traveller's Irish accent, to wear shawls and bangles, to look ordinary or as close as she can get, and then all she ends up doing is being tender and sympathetic? Do you know who she is, forchrissake? My client's more than held her own with Al Pacino, and you want her to play second fiddle to Dobbin?' There must have been oofle-dust around in sackfuls to persuade Barkin to lend her aura to a project that asks so little of her.

Still, there was nothing wrong with the eyesight of whoever cast Ruaidhr Conroy and Ciaran Fitzgerald as the boys. Fitzgerald in particular, as the younger brother, eight-year-old Ossie, works wonders. If they decide to make a Dublin-based version of Home Alone, he's the lad for the job. There's only so much warming, though, that even a healthy heart can take, and before you go to Into the West you should ask yourself one important question: are you capable of ordering an Irish coffee and then saying, as if it were the most normal thing in the world, 'Oh, hold the whiskey - and I'll have a hundredweight of marshmallows in that, barman, if you please'?

Steve Gough's Elenya (PG) is a curious blend of the national and international, made in two versions (English- and Welsh-language), set in rural Wales but filmed largely in Luxembourg so as to benefit from tax breaks available in that country. The story is set in the Second World War, with period atmosphere well conjured up with minimal resources: a radio broadcast, for instance, in which the plummy announcer refers to the enemy as the 'Jummans'.

Pascale Delafouge Jones plays Elenya, whose mother has compounded the error of being Italian with the sin of deserting her. She is looked after, without warmth, by her aunt Maggie, in a woodland setting that might be idyllic if there wasn't something in the very landscape and air that squelched joie de vivre (foreign notion, as the locals might say with a sniff).

Elenya feels isolated from her peers, goes for long walks through the woods, and when she discovers a German airman hanging unconscious from a tree in his parachute harness decides to look after him. This is almost a stock plot, a variant of a Beryl Bainbridge story-line or indeed of Another Time, Another Place, one of the early films funded by Channel 4 (whose Welsh counterpart S4C have a hand in Elenya).

Young Jones, 12 at the time of filming, performs credibly, but can't help the aunt emerging as the more interesting character. Sue Jones-Davies as Maggie delivers a great deal of emotional violence, without losing sight of what has been spoiled and wasted in this life. It's pathetically easy, even now, to make her happy. A child could do it - as long as it was a child who had something to gain from trying.

Jones-Davies' performance and Simon Fisher Turner's astringently atmospheric music are the best things about a film that doesn't amount to much more in the end than a short story, itself rather too low key in its study of thwarted emotions to make for a satisfying cinematic experience.

(Photograph omitted)

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