In the day

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Filmreviews -

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

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