In the day
YOU WAIT FOR ages for an old-school Irish heritage picture made with the assistance of a foreign benefactor, then two come along at once. Like the incoming Albert Nobbs, Stella Days is an anachronism, a stand-off between tradition and modernity that might have graced Irish cinemas in 1976.
Set in the 1950s, deep in de Valera World, Thaddeus O’sullivan’s picture concerns Daniel Barry (Martin Sheen), a progressive and academic-minded priest who dreams of opening a cinema in the Tipperary backwater where he is stationed.
There’s a snag, of course. The Bishop is keen on fundraising for one of those hip new modern churches. Meanwhile, various disgruntled locals, including Stephen Rea, rail against film as imported foreign “filth”.
Standard sentimental subplots come thick and fast as Joseph (Joseph O’sullivan), Fr Barry’s adorable ragamuffin chum, wonders aloud who his father is. (Yes, this again.) There’s some gentle humour and pitchforks at the ready over electrification: “Seventeen inches,” boasts the owner of an early big-screen TV.
Unhappily, Stella Days is far too caught up in the business of being A Film About Ireland to get around to resolving the fates of many of its characters, including the kid.
A young teacher (Tristan Gravelle), recently decamped from the big smoke, provides our frocked hero with a forum for clunky exchanges about the State of the Nation: “The country just lacks confidence.”
Hmmm. It’s almost like they’re talking about contemporary Rotten Ireland. See what they’ve done there? It requires Sheen’s lovely, heart-felt performance to rescue the picture from self-conscious deviations and discarded storylines. Like the cinema his character wishes to build, Sheen provides a touch of celluloid magic in an otherwise dreary locale.
It’s a pity. Stella Days works hard to reimagine the exportable Oirish nun-on-a-bicycle whimsies of yore as a film with a social conscience and ends up stranded at the drive-in.
Its hero may please church fans feeling besieged by certain unpleasant headlines. But it’s a niche product, at least in this century. SEAN BEAN is Ewan Keane, a war veteran and secret service wonk who lost his wife in the London bombings. He’s a perfect foot soldier for shady handlers James Fox and Charlotte Rampling to send out in pursuit of a terrorist cell and a cache of Semtex.
Elsewhere, Bright Young Muslim Ash (Abhin Galeya, excellent) is falling under the sinister spell of radical cleric Nabil (Peter Polycarpou). As a “cleanskin”, a would-be terrorist with an unblemished record, no one will see Ash coming. Will conscience get the better of him or will Sean Bean get him first?
Cleanskin is the third feature from British indie film-maker Hadi Hajaig and a change of pace from his previous excursions into lowbudget psych-horror. The writer, director and producer of Cleanskin is evidently a talented guy. There’s a genuine post- Bourne crunch in the fight scenes and the chase sequences go like the clappers.
Hajaig wants to make the British Parallax View and he’s halfway there. By the third act we’re aware that no one in the world of black ops and terrorism cells can be trusted. (Who new?) In common with TV’S Spooks and current critical wow Homeland, Hajaig’s script incorporates sneaky nods to recent political scandals and conspiracies.
This is a big movie trapped inside a tiny one. Tussles over BritishIslamic identity are seamlessly incorporated. A boorish Middle Eastern assassin with a fondness for diabolical jumpers and Mr Bean marks an audacious and deftly handled shift between dark Borat comedy and unvarnished horror. There’s a lovely frisson between Bean and Rampling that makes you think what James Bond and M could be.
Unhappily, budgetary constraints do tell on the finished product. Cleanskin works hard with make-do joins, library music and tiny interiors but can’t quite rise above them. As for that fake headline about Spurs winning the Champions League . . .
Still, we can name 10 Hollywood attempts to grapple with the war on terror that don’t work nearly as well.
He’s got a bone to pick with you: Sean Bean in Cleanskin