Stella Days: Film Review
Martin Sheen stars as a progressive priest caught in the clash between tradition and modernity in 1950s Ireland in Thaddeus O'Sullivan's drama.
PROVINCETOWN, Mass. – Playing an emotionally burdened small-town Catholic priest in culturally isolated 1950s Ireland, Martin Sheen does his best work since The West Wing in Thaddeus O’Sullivan’s Stella Days. While its catharsis is somewhat muted and its script uneven, this splendidly acted drama explores its themes with sensitivity, gentle humor and poignancy that will appeal in particular to older audiences.
Inspired by Michael Doorley’s memoir of the same name, the script by Antoine O’Flatharta unfolds against a backdrop of social and cultural transformation – and stubborn resistance to it. In 1956, rural electrification was finally bringing light to the more remote parts of the country. This arrival of modernity was often met with skepticism, while the murky marriage of Church and State was conspiring to keep Ireland in the dark. That standoff between change and tradition, liberal thinking and closed-mindedness, is not exactly uncharted territory in Irish film, which is perhaps Stella Days’ biggest weakness.
Progressive cleric Daniel Barry (Sheen) sees his temporary assignment to the tiny Tipperary backwater of Borrisokane as a penance. A solitary, contemplative academic and amateur filmmaker, he spent 20 years in America. He then ruffled feathers while angling for a prestigious position in the Vatican library, which he lost to a younger scholar. Intellectually starved and somewhat removed from the small concerns of his parishioners, he eagerly awaits his return posting to the Vatican.
With money needed to build a new church, Bishop Hegarty (Tom Hickey) delays Father Barry’s transfer, insisting instead that the priest first do his part with the fundraising. A lover of movies and a believer in their power to communicate, Father Barry suggests opening a cinema. Mindful of what the Bishop refers to as “a constant, never-ending battle for the control of their hearts and minds,” he promises that the movie house will be a civilizing influence, showing only films deemed morally suitable.
While the Bishop proves malleable, xenophobic politician Brendan McSweeny (Stephen Rae) does not, branding all movies as corrupting filth. Looking to obstruct the priest’s efforts at every turn, McSweeny seizes on Father Barry’s vulnerability, accusing him of putting himself above the needs of his people.
While the film tends to meander, its central character remains compelling thanks to the intelligence and restraint of Sheen’s performance. Via some brief flashbacks, we learn that his calling was decided by his overbearing father, who packed him off to the seminary at age 12 with the promise of a life of great power and influence. Instead, faced with a reality he sees as “damp and poor in every way,” Father Barry experiences a crisis of faith, his sense of purpose steadily crumbling.
Those doubts are fed also by the difficulties of Molly (Marcella Plunkett), a young mother whose hotheaded, unreliable husband is absent for long stretches at a time in London, leaving her to raise their impressionable son Joey (Joseph O’Sullivan) alone. Craving affection, Molly is drawn to her lodger, Tim (Trystan Gravelle), a new-in-town schoolteacher who also becomes a friend to the priest.
After gaining some attention with his early features in the 1990s, December Bride and Nothing Personal, director O’Sullivan has worked mainly in TV for the past decade, notably on HBO’s Winston Churchill biodrama Into the Storm, which won an Emmy for Brendan Gleeson. His new film takes time building momentum and is overcrowded with subplots, not all of them resolved with great clarity. But its themes of faith and conscience in a blinkered, oppressively conservative Ireland resistant to change gradually emerge. The story will resonate strongest at home, as will its nods to the country’s current economic situation. But its charms are by no means inaccessible.
The sedate, old-fashioned qualities of Stella Days are among its strengths, echoed in the handsome period production values and in Nicholas Hooper’s melodic score. There’s a convincing sense of a time, a place and a specific kind of community here, and while the film has moments of Cinema Paradiso-style sentiment, these are achieved with delicacy.
Chief asset is the cast, with fine work from the lovely Plunkett and from Rea in an amusingly dour role. But it’s Sheen who carries the film. He brings sorrowful dimensions to a conflicted character that both bristles against and uncomfortably reflects a culture steeped in uneasy contradictions.
Venue: Provincetown Film Festival (Tribeca Film)
Production company: Newgrange Pictures, in association with Paradox
Cast: Martin Sheen, Stephen Rea, Trystan Gravelle, Marcella Plunkett, Tom Hickey, Amy Huberman, Joseph O’Sullivan
Director: Thaddeus O’Sullivan
Screenwriter: Antoine O’Flatharta, inspired by Michael Doorley’s memoir
Producers: Jackie Larkin, Maggie Pope, Lesley McKimm, Thaddeus O’Sullivan
Director of photography: John Christian Roselund
Production designer: Anna Rackard
Music: Nicholas Hooper
Costume designer: Judith Williams
Editor: Dermot Diskin
Sales: Films Distribution
No rating, 87 minutes