Is there still anything exotic about Ireland? At this late date, we’ve presumably got all the leprechauns, banshees, donnybrooks, malarkey, blarney, gift of gab, craic, lace-curtain biddies, loquacious town drunks, Barry Fitzgerald, Victor McLaglen, Margaret O’Brien, Tullamore Dew, poteen, black velvet, patriots’ graves, Battle of the Boyne, Easter Rebellion, IRA, bombs, Irish confetti, hunger strikes, suffering, poetry, Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wilde, Bernard Shaw, Sean O’Casey, Brendan Behan, W.B. Yeats, Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus, rising of the moon, shanties, battle songs, Sinéad O’Connor, Chieftains, tin whistles, Shane MacGowan, County Mayo (god help us), sagging cottages, peat bogs, Brian Boru, Saint Paddy, Saint Brigid, bejesus, crap and corruption connected with that Western European land, all of that, completely out of our systems, and can finally see the Republic of Ireland for what it undoubtedly is — a country where ordinary people live ordinary lives like anywhere else. That is, all the magic has been drained out of the place. How boring is that?
Say it ain’t so, Declan Recks.
Director Recks’ quiet, carefully observed drama Eden, made from a screenplay by Eugene O’Brien adapted from his own stage play, boils the contemporary Irish experience down to a nuanced contest of wills between a thirtyish man and woman in County Offaly, in the center of Ireland. Billy and Breda Farrell’s tidy, middle-class hometown is the type of community where everyone knows everyone else’s business. And so the shock of it wears off quickly when we see red-haired, balding Billy (played by theater actor Aidan Kelly), the local telephone and cable TV lineman, tapping into his neighbors’ conversations as he makes his rounds. It’s not like they’re a bunch of terrorists or anything. Good-timing Billy has the habit of stopping off at the pub for a pint with his pals, and that’s where the difference between them shows — his friend Breff (lively Karl Shiels) is a free and footloose sort, whereas Billy is stuck in his role as a family man, however reluctantly.
At home with their two kids, Breda (Eileen Walsh) is the original still water that runs deep. Her face isn’t necessarily glamorous, but possesses a sensuality that comes from within, with large, expressive eyes, dark hair, and a disarmingly tremulous chin. Breda and Billy, it seems, stopped making love quite a while ago. It’s hard to tell which came first, Billy’s habit of going out drinking with his mates every night or Breda’s trick of faking sleep when he finally staggers in. To make matters worse, there’s a flirtatious, pretty young woman named Imelda (Sarah Green) who’s caught Billy’s wandering eye at the pub — although he takes reasonable pains to resist hitting on her. But his resolve is steadily eroding. Meanwhile, the couple’s tenth wedding anniversary is approaching. A romantic evening is planned.
Originally written as a two-character play, Eden is not exactly F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, although the simplicity of Billy and Breda’s story has that timeless, universal feel to it. Breda is ultimately every bit as weak as Billy, although she’s nowhere near as oafish; and Billy’s heart really never strays very far from home. The strength of Eden, implicit in the title, is after all the charm and loquaciousness of the Irish people, no denying that. They’re living in a humble paradise. Poor Billy will never be a match for any flirt, but long-suffering Breda, the mother of us all, will keep him on the straight and narrow.
The payoff of this type of nouveau-kitchen-sink domestic drama is in the delicate currents of emotion eddying around Breda and Billy. Nobody shoots anyone. There are no demons or fairies involved, only a woman and her temporarily wayward man. And yet the sweet sadness of it rises through the banter like a mist. It’s something to take home with you.
For fans of a certain style of American roots music — those for whom the names Muddy Waters, Etta James, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon, and Little Walter resonate — Darnell Martin’s musical biopic Cadillac Records, a dramatized look at the legendary Chess Records, is the most eagerly anticipated movie since Ray. It turns out to be grittier and more lowdown than that Ray Charles bio — more akin to the punk rock saga What We Do Is Secret than a worshipful history lesson.
Writer-director Martin, a TV veteran (Law & Order), takes a “we’re all in this together, motherfucker” position on the eternal question of who screwed whom when it comes to black entertainers making music for white businessmen. “Race music” producer Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody) is a Polish-Jewish junk dealer who opens a nightclub and recording studio on Chicago’s South Side and inks a stable of soon-to-be heraldic talents, showering them with shiny new Cadillacs. Chess was no saint. He greased their way with payola, dipped into one artist’s royalties to pay another’s bills, and charged his stars for their rides — no such thing as a free Eldorado. But he helped break the color line in the ’50s and recorded an enduring body of work.
Brody plays Chess as a hipster/hustler with a nose for funk, the “White Daddy” who never actually abuses his artists but enjoys running their lives for them. Their lives were generally pretty complicated, and all the principal actors rise to the occasion with more than a random whiff of violence. Former Mississippi Delta field hand and bluesman Waters (Jeffrey Wright, with conked hair) was a stud with a Stratocaster, at least until hulking Howlin’ Wolf (Eamonn Walker) came on the scene breathing smokestack lightning — don’t ever try to steal Wolf’s guitarist. Soul diva James (a transformed Beyoncé Knowles) brought energy to the label in the ’60s when its blues sound faltered on the charts — she was also a junkie as well as the boss’ main love thang. But the acting prize goes to Columbus Short as mercurial blues harp wizard Little Walter, the sort of dude who guns down copycats with his revolver. The movie is framed as a flashback reminiscence by composer Willie Dixon (Cedric the Entertainer), writer of many of the label’s hits.
The only major Chess artist missing is Bo Diddley. He’s the focus of the other Chess biopic hanging around waiting for its shot: director Jerry Zaks’ Who Do You Love, which takes a slightly different view of the era, reportedly because it ran into song licensing budget problems — Chuck Berry reportedly wanted too much. It’ll have a hard time topping Cadillac Records.