Set in the late 1960s, the film centers on the enmity between estranged middle-aged brothers John Joe and Jimmy MacMahon, both of whom learned to play the fiddle at their father’s knee but have nothing in common four decades later except their passion for ceili music. Jimmy (Colm Meaney), a brash building contractor in flashy suits, is the leader of the Liverpool Shamrock Ceili Band, and is determined to bring his crew of Scouse-Irish moptops across the Irish Sea to wrest the All-Ireland Ceili Music trophy from his older brother John Joe’s band. John Joe (Bernard Hill), a stern bachelor, still lives on the family farm in County Clare and has won the big competition year after year. Jimmy’s band features a talented young flute player, Teddy (Shaun Evans), who becomes enamored with John Joe’s pretty young fiddler (Andrea Corr), causing dark secrets from the brothers’ past to resurface.
“The Boys and Girl from County Clare” inverts the usual romantic plot convention, placing the character actors Hill and Meaney in the foreground and relegating the young and photogenic love interests, Corr and Evans, to supporting roles. And just as well, too — the cantankerous sparring between the grouchy brothers provides most of the entertainment in a storyline that is astoundingly predictable to the point of absurdity, announcing all of its shocking non-surprises with all the subtlety of a bullhorn. Burdened with an awkward title, tepid ceili music and patchy dialogue, the film soon nosedives in a giddy descent into preposterousness that probably shouldn’t bother us too much as long as we’re enjoying Colm Meaney in full flight. Hill, an august performer as the doomed captain in “Titanic” and King Theodon in “The Lord Of The Rings?” is able but miscast as Meaney’s foil, the grim bandleader John Joe. Casting non-Irish actors in Irish roles can give international appeal to local productions, but given that Hill is not exactly a household name and he speaks as though he learned the County Clare accent in a hurry from Berlitz cassettes, the filmmakers might have fared better casting an Irish actor to go to toe-to-toe with Meaney’s dapper reprobate. Native talent shines through, though, in the form of Corr, radiant despite a trip to the frump section of the wardrobe department, playing the lovelorn violinist Anne, in her first film role since “The Commitments” 14 years ago.
And if the rugged landscapes and blustery seashores in the film stir a blurry-eyed yearning for a trip home to the lovely province of Munster, choke back those tears — the film was shot for the most part in the Isle of Man. The little island with the big tax incentives for filmmakers once again trumps Ireland proper as the more affordable location to make an Irish film.
(“The Boys And Girl from County Clare” premieres at the Craic Festival today, March 2, at 7 p.m. at Loews 34, 312 West 34th St., NYC, and opens for a limited run on March 11.)