Directed by Thaddeus O’Sullivan. Starring Martin Sheen, Stephen Rea, Tristan Gravelle, Marcella Plunkett, Joseph O’Sullivan, Tom Hickey, Derbhle Crotty, Amy Huberman, Ruth McCabe 15A cert, general release, 100 min
YOU WAIT FOR ages for an old-school Irish heritage picture made with the assistance of a foreign benefactor, then two come along at once. Like the incoming Albert Nobbs, Stella Daysis an anachronism, a stand-off between tradition and modernity that might have graced Irish cinemas in 1976.
Set in the 1950s, deep in de Valera World, Thaddeus O’Sullivan’s picture concerns Daniel Barry (Martin Sheen), a progressive and academic-minded priest who dreams of opening a cinema in the Tipperary backwater where he is stationed.
There’s a snag, of course. The Bishop is keen on fundraising for one of those hip new modern churches. Meanwhile, various disgruntled locals, including Stephen Rea, rail against film as imported foreign “filth”.
Standard sentimental subplots come thick and fast as Joseph (Joseph O’Sullivan), Fr Barry’s adorable ragamuffin chum, wonders aloud who his father is. (Yes, this again.) There’s some gentle humour and pitchforks at the ready over electrification: “Seventeen inches,” boasts the owner of an early big-screen TV.
Unhappily, Stella Daysis far too caught up in the business of being A Film About Ireland to get around to resolving the fates of many of its characters, including the kid.
A young teacher (Tristan Gravelle), recently decamped from the big smoke, provides our frocked hero with a forum for clunky exchanges about the State of the Nation: “The country just lacks confidence.”
Hmmm. It’s almost like they’re talking about contemporary Rotten Ireland. See what they’ve done there? It requires Sheen’s lovely, heart-felt performance to rescue the picture from self-conscious deviations and discarded storylines. Like the cinema his character wishes to build, Sheen provides a touch of celluloid magic in an otherwise dreary locale.
It’s a pity. Stella Daysworks hard to reimagine the exportable Oirish nun-on-a-bicycle whimsies of yore as a film with a social conscience and ends up stranded at the drive-in.
Its hero may please church fans feeling besieged by certain unpleasant headlines. But it’s a niche product, at least in this century.