It's a wonder the audience didn't let out a collective shriek, "Surprise me, please!"


A Illusion review by Joan Ellis.

"Circle of Friends" is a pretty picture about appealing people in a lovely landscape, but not one surprise lies on its predictable path. It's a wonder the audience didn't let out a collective shriek, "Surprise me, please!"

Actress Minnie Driver is delightful as Benny, the spunky young girl who takes the daily bus from her country town to the university in Dublin. At first sight, plain Benny falls for Jack (Chris O'Donnell) the reigning rugby jock who, to his everlasting credit, sees her real spirit. "You really know yourself, don't you, Benny?" Jack asks. "Yes, I do," she replies.

Up to this point we have met Benny's protective parents, her friends Eve and Nan, and enough of the bare Irish countryside to warm the heart of a minimalist. It can't go wrong, we think, and then it does. Hooked by a budding romance and the lilting Irish rhythms, we wait interminably for the movie to live up to its good beginning, and it never does.

The truth is, we have been dropped into a soap opera. Can a plain little girl from a little country town find happiness with Dublin's reigning rugby star? In this circle of friends, will we have to worry about rape, betrayal, a pregnancy, an accident? Can Benny count on the loyalty of Eve and Nan? Like the soap it is, the movie dangles these questions before us, and when the answers come, they are so predictable that all dramatic tension drains from the screen.

And that's a shame when the central performance by Minnie Driver is so strong. With a ready smile, natural enthusiasm and open curiosity, she makes Benny vulnerable, but with a sense of herself so sure, that vulnerability never does her in. Bennie suffers whenever she is squeezed into the artifice of college life or a too-tight dance dress, but she becomes a sparkling package of wit, loyalty and decency whenever she is in a meadow with Jack or chattering with her good friend Eve.

Even Driver can't lift the picture out of the hackneyed dilemmas of the '50s. It was a time when pre-marital pregnancy carried consequences beyond the understanding of today's young people, a time when the loss of a boyfriend meant being trapped at home until another could be snagged. These kinds of problems seem ludicrous in the '90s.

I wondered for a few moments if this might be a spoof on those times, but it isn't. Then I considered the possibility that it might be an affectionate, if misguided attempt to capture the "flavor" of the '50s. Alas, it is neither. It's a sudser, nothing more.

If you are charmed by Ireland, think about going instead or also to "The Secret of Roan Inish," a small jewel of a film that captures the extraordinary ability of the Irish to tell a story. A good story is something that eluded entirely the makers of "Circle of Friends."

Film Critic : JOAN ELLIS
Word Count : 494
Studio : Savoy Pictures
Rating : PG-13
Running Time: 1h52m

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