Palm Springs International Film Festival

PALM SPRINGS -- The faces of five middle-age Irish men are the landscape of "Kings" -- a terrain of craggy, ferocious beauty, much like the Connemara they left 30 years earlier and still long for.

Those faces are among the film's pleasures, as is the chance to hear the guttural music of the Irish language, a tongue rarely heard even in Eire.

But despite the fine work of its cast -- Colm Meaney among them -- the film feels increasingly constricted by its stage roots and grows less interesting as it proceeds. "Kings," the first Irish-language Oscar submission, is less rewarding as a drama than as a mood piece steeped in alcohol, recriminations and sorrow. It also is an affecting group portrait of the unsettled immigrant soul and of people living disenfranchised lives in the shadows of cities they've adopted but not embraced and, in this case, helped to build.

Based on Jimmy Murphy's play "The Kings of the Kilburn High Road," the story uses the tired contrivance of a once-tight group of friends reuniting for a wake after one of the clique dies. Having made their lives, with varying degrees of success, in England, this quintet holds fast to notions of home they can neither regain nor relinquish. In a sense, they envy Jackie, the friend they've come to mourn, because he's returning to western Ireland, where his grief-stunned father (Peadar O'Treasaigh) will bury him.

Beyond his sailing championships, spotty employment history and struggles with alcohol, Jackie remains a cipher. In mourning him, the men really are mourning their youth. When they came to North London in 1977, full of energy and purpose, they were among a vast wave of Irish emigrants, many of whom entered the construction industry. Jackie died under an underground train -- in a tunnel likely built by Irish workers.

At various points in the past three decades, Jackie's friends all cut their ties to him, and all wrestle with guilt. That guilt is an overemphasized element in the film's emotional mix, especially for the most financially successful member of the group, Joe (Meaney), who can't bring himself to enter the church for the funeral. (Later, though, he snorts some cocaine in a confessional.) Joe broke away from the group many years earlier and formed his own construction company. That Jap (Donal O'Kelly, a standout in this excellent cast) still resents him for it is a good indication of how stunted some of these men are.

Jap shares a squalid flat with Git (Brendan Conroy), both devoted to the bottle. Mairtin (Barry Barnes) is trying to kick the sauce at the insistence of his dour, fed-up wife. Shay (Donncha Crowley), who owns a produce stall, is the only one to have left the "real work" of construction and seems the best adjusted.

As these men fumble through their boozy ritual, writer-director Tom Collins and cinematographer PJ Dillon draw in close, with intimate camerawork and a strong sense of working-class neighborhoods. Yet the adapted dialogues too often feel stagy and repetitive, and rather than building cumulative impact, this rue-infused film feels longer than its running time.

High Point Films/Panorama Entertainment
Screenwriter-director: Tom Collins
Based on the play "The Kings of the Kilburn High Road" by Jimmy Murphy
Producer: Jackie Larkin
Director of photography: PJ Dillon
Production designer: David Craig
Music: Pol O'Brennan
Co-producer: Michael Casey
Costume designer: Maggie Donnelly
Editor: Dermot Diskin
Joe Mullan: Colm Meaney
Jap: Donal O'Kelly
Git: Brendan Conroy
Mairtin: Barry Barnes
Shay: Donncha Crowley
Jackie: Sean O'Tarpaigh
Micil: Peadar O'Treasaigh
Running time -- 89 minutes
No MPAA rating