FILM / Power and the pint: Pop culture plays its tune in Ireland in The Snapper, while Tom and Jerry break all the rules

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The Independent Culture
IF HAPPY families are the ones where people don't bottle their emotions up, the Curleys, in Stephen Frears' film The Snapper (on cinema release, though already shown on television), are in some sort of state of bliss. The air hardly has time to catch its breath before it's cleared again by a new outburst of love and shouting.

The Curleys used to be the Rabbittes until their creator, Roddy Doyle, sold the name to the film company that made The Commitments. The Rabbittes are dead, long live the Curleys. The stories of the two films are different, with The Snapper focusing on an unplanned pregnancy and its consequences, and the directors certainly take different approaches, with Frears steering well clear of the gloss and dynamism that Alan Parker brought to the larger adventures of The Commitments. The world of Roddy Doyle, though, is demonstrably continuous, a place where the speech is scrupulously rough, uproarious and often intensely funny, but the conflicts behind the words have been sanded down so as to produce no real friction.

The Snapper, like The Commitments, takes place in an Irish parallel universe where the Pope has less influence than the King (Elvis, that is). Looking at either film, you would conclude that rock 'n' roll had deeper roots in the Irish republic than Catholicism. The postman sings 'Return to Sender' as he makes his deliveries, and the mail he delivers is similarly infused with pop culture. An erring husband writes: 'I am, as the old song goes, 'Torn Between Two Lovers'.'

No doubt films with an Irish setting habitually use the trappings of religion in a stereotypical way (the soutane and biretta glimpsed against an advertisement for Guinness signifying the Republic of Ireland in the way that red double-deckers on postcards guarantee London). But to downplay religion to the point of removing it altogether is hardly more realistic. In The Snapper the disingenuousness is very striking, since the plot concerns the reactions of 20-year-old Sharon (Tina Kellegher, with her long, dignified face and her rueful, asymmetrical expressions) to a reproductive crisis - an area of life in which Popes have traditionally taken an interest. She finds herself pregnant after an encounter too brief to be called even a one-night stand. The nearest she had to sweet talk from the man who was to change her life was when he asked, while they were rocking rhythmically against the bonnet of a car, 'Is that you squeaking?'

Sharon doesn't give abortion a moment's thought, which is handy since she lives in a country where the obtaining of such a thing is more than usually difficult. Her spontaneous decision happens to coincide perfectly with what she would do if she was a loyal daughter of Rome. Meanwhile, her father (Dessi, played by Colm Meaney), when he hears her news, splutters that he should have been told before the event, not after, but it isn't clear what he means. He seems to be indulging in generalised parental reproaches rather than indicating he would have told her to take precautions. Again, Catholicism doesn't need to appear at all in The Snapper, when the characters make of their own free will the choices that religion would impose on them.

The only contraceptive mentioned in the film is not a condom but a smart coat, which Dessi bought during his courtship of Kay (Ruth McCabe) and was so proud of that he was unwilling to risk dirtying it by using it as a blanket on wet grass. That coat could have had the Vatican's blessing, and these days might be described in some benighted circles as a prophylactic against Aids as well as against conception (Aids, however, does not exist in parallel Ireland).

There are winning moments of tender communication between the parents in The Snapper, notably when Kay hints that the greatest single improvement Dessi could make to his love-making technique would be to brush his teeth before coming to bed. Kay is in her early forties, but we are not encouraged to think that her attitude to love-making might have something to do with their sharing their bedroom with an invisible college of cardinals.

It seems to her husband simply capricious, a matter of his getting lucky once in a while - he's startled when his cheeky approach, 'I suppose a ride is out of the question?' isn't rebuffed. But does Kay want a late child, who would be her seventh? Rabbittes, after all - sorry, Curleys - don't breed like rabbits, they make reproductive decisions that depend on what their society allows, decisions whose consequences fall on women rather than men.

In The Snapper the men are portrayed as infantile no matter what their age, while to be female is to be adult more or less from the word go. This makes for some fine comedy, but is uncomfortably close to the idea that women have all the real power already, so what would they be wanting with equality? It's less expensive, culturally, to turn women into heroines for making choices that aren't real choices than to extend their range of options.

Sharon isn't the most cautious of expectant mothers, admittedly, not letting pregnancy interfere unduly with her drinking (the drinking which is arguably responsible for her pregnancy), but perhaps in parallel Ireland alcohol has no power to damage a foetus. In this respect, she is her father's daughter: Dessi reacts to each stage of the unravelling of the paternity mystery largely in terms of how it will affect his welcome at the pub. His most heartfelt statements all have the word 'pint' in them somewhere.

Dessi volunteers to be Sharon's labour partner, an offer she turns down, and generally tries to be more involved as a grandfather than he was as a father. But men in parallel Ireland can't really progress, only regress in different ways, and for him Sharon's pregnancy is more of an adventure than it can possibly be for her. In the world of the film, there are no fathers, only mothers and children of different ages.

The film shows its hand just before the end, with a broad bit of editing which links a baby at the breast with Dessi rewarding himself with a pint. The main point of difference seems to be that he needs no help to burp. Earlier in the film, this might pass as satire on a drinking culture and the licence it gives to male irresponsibility, but this late on it is full of warmth. Roddy Doyle starts by investigating the imbalance between the sexes in his story but ends up celebrating it, and The Snapper is funny, entertaining and, yes, life affirming - so long as you don't look too hard at the effaced religion that determines the story's structure, and the hidden costs, borne by women, of the affirmation.

(Photograph omitted)

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