Never knowing one’s own father must be a special kind of hell. To escape these flames of despair, Kieran Johnson (James Caan) hopes to discover the truth about his unknown parent in This Is My Father. Playing a disillusioned Chicago high school teacher, Caan, no longer that tough guy from The Godfather movies, delivers his most heartbreaking performance. Staring out his classroom window in the opening sequence, Caan projects an intense sadness that reaches out from the screen and bonds viewers with him immediately.
Because he is a widower, this lonely, middle-aged man has very little home life. When not teaching school, he helps his divorced sister care for their mother --- a woman left without speech after a debilitating stroke. He also tries to counsel his rebellious teenage nephew. (And you thought you had problems!)
Then, one day, he finds an old photograph that changes everything. The picture shows his mother as a young woman in Ireland with a man also named Kieran. By traveling to Ireland and showing the photo to people who knew his mother when she lived there, Kieran hopes to unlock the secrets of his family’s past and to identify the man in the picture. With the help of an eccentric old woman (Moira Deady), who admits to placing a curse on his grandmother long ago, Kieran learns the truth about his parents.
As the old woman tells her story, the movie switches back in time to the Ireland of 1939. Kieran O’Day (Aidan Quinn), a poor farmer, falls in love with Fionna Flynn (talented newcomer Moya Farrelly), the high-spirited young daughter of a class-conscious, demanding mother (Gina Moxley, simply amazing in this role). Obstacles to this romance match the trials and tribulations of Romeo and Juliet. No matter how much the two love each other, their age and social differences cause an entire community to be against their marriage. And, unlike those other “star-crossed” lovers, they cannot depend on a friendly padre for help. Instead, Kieran faces a fire and brimstone Missionary Priest (Stephen Rea) who frightens him into thinking he must stay away from Fionna at all costs. This so-called holy man actually throws one sinner out of the confessional, shouting, “Don’t come back until you’ve stopped doing that!”
Watching Quinn as the doomed farmer may give his fans quite a shock. Although perfect in this role, he looks nothing like the handsome leading man they so admired in films like Practical Magic and Desperately Seeking Susan. With short-cropped hair and a heavier physique than usual, he moves in a plodding, slightly stooped manner befitting the character he portrays. But, oh, that charming Irish brogue and those mesmerizing blue eyes! Quinn is, indeed, an actor at the top of his game here.
This Is My Father is a family labor of love. Paul Quinn, Aidan’s brother, makes a promising directorial debut with this touching film based on his own script. And another creative brother, Declan, served as cinematographer. Kudos for those gorgeous scenes of the lush Irish countryside! Discriminating viewers should not miss this powerful cinematic lesson about uncovering the secrets of the past to rejuvenate the present.
(Released by Sony Pictures Classics and rated “R” for sexuality and language.)