Closing the Ring



Toronto International Film Festival

TORONTO -- "Closing the Ring" is so misguided as to make one feel sorry for director Richard Attenborough. One doesn't relish disparaging a British lord. But what was he thinking when he signed on to direct such a lugubrious, sentimental and implausible tale? Did he think he could channel his first film director, David Lean, with this romantic nonsense that evokes World War II and the Northern Irish "troubles" to portray a love across decades and the divide between the living and dead?

Whatever he was thinking, it was not boxoffice. This would seem to be a film designed for people who no longer go to movies. At least not to theaters, which may mean a spot of success for "Ring" in DVD.

An unusually dour and lifeless Shirley MacLaine plays Ethel, newly widowed in a small Michigan town in 1991. She shows little regard for her recently diseased husband or her hysterical, alienated daughter Marie (Neve Campbell). A flicker of interest flares when old friend Jack (Christopher Plummer) turns up for the funeral. But her real interest is directed toward her liquor cabinet. For his part, Jack prefers to drink himself silly -- embarrassingly so -- in a local bar.

All the buried secrets and recriminations among these unhappy people get interrupted constantly by flashbacks to the 1940s and sideway flashes to Northern Ireland where an old man and a lad dig at a World War II plane crash site. All things will be connected, Peter Woodward's screenplay promises.

It goes something like this: Jack is the now sole survivor of three local boys who signed up for the Air Corps and were shipped to Northern Ireland in 1944. Back then, all three love Ethel (played as a youth with solemn sensuality by Mischa Barton). Teddy Gordon (Stephen Amell) wins her heart and her hand in a secret marriage. But he extracts a promise from Chuck (David Alpay) that he will take care of Ethel if Teddy does not return.

At the site of Teddy's fatal crash, old man Michael (Pete Postlethwaite) has spent a lifetime extracting bits of the old aircraft despite the fact the IRA likes to bury bodies of its victims there. Why he does so is his little secret. However, this inspires young Jimmy (Martin McCann) to join him. Before you know it, Jimmy finds the ring that Ethel gave Teddy the last time she saw him.

Jimmy telephones news of his discovery long distance -- having improbably tracked Ethel down in the days before the Internet. This sets off a chain of events that spills the beans about the loveless marriage of Marie's mother, Jack's unrequited passion for Ethel and the IRA's terrorist bombings. Somehow Ethel, Jack, Michael and Jimmy all wind up on the same Northern Irish town street in the moments between two bomb attacks so that Michael can at last reveal his decades-old secret to Ethel.

The melodrama keeps coming at you with unabashed glee. But rather than gasps, it's the sound of giggles that accompany each new revelation about the foolishness of making and, even worse, keeping wartime promises.

And talk about sealing away your emotions. When MacLaine puts down her cocktail glass to drag out tools to pull apart the secret place where she has walled up her life, the schmaltz brings the film to a complete halt.

The period sequences are the best things here. They are well produced and designed, and it helps that the young actors do not have such a ludicrous soap opera to perform. (Barton even goes topless to attract fans of "The O.C.") In present-day settings, the standout is the film's most superfluous character. Brenda Fricker plays a wartime tart turned grandmother with such glorious glee, the film perks up each moment she appears. Alas, it isn't often enough.

Prospero Pictures/Scion Films
Director: Richard Attenborough
Writer: Peter Woodward
Producer: Jo Gilbert
Executive producers: Jeff Abberley, Julia Blackman, Jamie Carmichael, Graham Begg, Patrice Theroux, Andrew Hildebrand
Director of photography: Roger Pratt
Production designer: Tom McCullagh
Costume designer: Hazel Webb-Crozier
Music: Jeff Danna
Editor: Lesley Walker
Ethel: Shirley MacLaine
Jack: Christopher Plummer
Young Ethel: Mischa Barton
Marie: Neve Campbell
Grandma Reilly: Brenda Fricker
Michael Quinlan: Pete Postlethwaite
Jimmy: Martin McCann
Young Jack: Gregory Smith
Teddy Gordon: Stephen Amell
Chuck: David Alpay
Running time -- 119 minutes
No MPAA rating