The Nephew (1998)

D: Eugene Brady
S: Donal McCann, Pierce Brosnan, Hill Harper

A small Irish island community is thrown into turmoil by the arrival of a young man from America (Hill Harper) whose mother, a native, has recently died. He finds himself the unwitting centre of an ongoing conflict between his uncle Donal McCann and local bar owner Pierce Brosnan, who have been at loggerheads since his mother left twenty years before. Further complications ensue when the boy develops a friendship with Brosnan's daughter.

So what's here that we haven't seen before? Not much actually, except, get this, it seems to have been funny to someone at some point in the development of this script that the Irish-American youth is black. Ha ha. Hilarious. It even cops out at that gag though, and after some initial cross-cultural inappropriateness (which might, just might, have given the film some edge), the entire question of race is dropped and dismissed as irrelevant, which given the frames of reference of the story (jokes about the 'backwardness' of the community and the conservatism of McCann's character) is simply not believable. The rest is business as usual.

Like (too) many Irish films, The Nephew is set in a 'colourful' world steeped in 'tradition' and framed by a lovingly photographed landscape which offers a setting in which the drama is played out like a half-assed allegory for Irish history. It is centrally concerned with how the past affects the present, and pits character against character in an attempt to uncover 'hidden' secrets which turn out to be pointless grudges rather than real issues. There's nothing wrong with this as such, but it has been done so often that the film required something special to make it interesting. Perverse as it sounds, the racial angle did offer such an opportunity, but it is peculiarly muted and confined to one or two punchlines and an embarrassingly bad scene where farm hand Phelim Drew sings a rap version of "Whisky in the Jar". It seems that Ireland is not quite ready to face up to its racial demons yet, though I suppose it is notable that a black character features so prominently in an Irish film at all.

The film is bolstered by performances better than it deserves. McCann is excellent in a role which is not well written, with Brosnan quietly effective after the rigours of Tomorrow Never Dies and Dante's Peak (he was also co-producer). It is stolen by young Harper though, who is natural and likable. There are many weak scenes written around him, but he rises above them and comes out of the affair with a great deal more dignity than might be expected. Support from a variety of familiar faces is interesting, with Sinead Cusack and Niall Toibin contributing nicely, though some of the younger, less well known cast are less effective.

Lush cinematography helps to keep you distracted, and bits and pieces of it function relatively well. It does not perform as a whole though, with too many cliches eventually overwhelming even the efforts of its cast. It is also woefully inconsistent in its portrayal of the community, unable to reconcile the emerging need to feature a more contemporary Ireland to satisfy the domestic audience and to retain as many romantic ideals as possible to ensure an international distribution deal. Instead of opting for one or the other, it jumps between the two and never manages to be convincing either way.

The film plays only on a most basic level and will bore most people long before it resolves its crises in a formulaic fashion. It is not quite the disaster that Gold in the Streets was, but in the year of The Butcher Boy, The General and even How to Cheat in the Leaving Certificate, The Nephew does not achieve the standard that Irish films have been reaching of late. Of course we should remember that it is not that long since a film like this would have been the one indigenous production of the year, so we should be grateful that we have better films to compare it with, badly as it fares against them. This is insufficient justification for a recommendation though, and The Nephew is really best avoided by all except the curious.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.