A Film Review By Stefan Vlahov
An idealistic blockbuster about the Irish immigrant struggle in late 19th century America, director Ron Howard’s Far and Away has received an unfairly bad rap over the last decade. Long thought of as an overblown melodramatic epic, the film actually hides a fairly subtle message about class structure beneath all the scenic shots of the American countryside. For it was the coming of the immigrants in the late 19th century that turned the US into a (less pronounced) “caste system”, with the so-called ‘aliens’ dueling deep in the dark underbellies of the big cities.
Of course it would be simply untrue to call Far and Away a ‘study’ of those tumultuous times. Instead, Howard uses the tumult to provide the two main roles with plenty of character-building adventures and culture clashes. A good example is the film’s prologue which portrays three rowdy but hardworking Irish brothers plowing their farm’s land just before it is taken over by the Irish aristocracy in a tragic turn of events. This scene and the subsequent events that occur to main characters Joseph Donnelly (Tom Cruise) and Shannon Christie (Nicole Kidman) serve as a list of reasons why people immigrated to the US. The US wasn’t simply the the Great White Light of the West, and in fact most Irish immigrants would have preferred not to have moved, but so often in these stories, people are running away from something, not going to anything.
Howard’s film is anything but tightly constructed, as screenwriter Bob Dolman (Willow) leaves no stone unturned with his highly detailed script. Still, Howard never loses focus of the characters and either one of them is within the frame in almost every scene of the film. We find ourselves learning about the Irish culture through their experiences and confrontations, not through needless narration or exposition. Their love for one another is constantly challenged by the external nightmare they’ve been thrust into. Kidman’s Christie is especially pitiful since she would have led a much more materialistically rewarding life had she stayed with her wealthy aristocratic family in Ireland. We are often made aware of that fact, most strongly when her wealthy family eventually shows up stateside in an attempt to take her back to Ireland.
Far and Away is many things, from a romantic drama to a survivalist tale and the fact that it works successfully within the various genres is not only a credit to Howard, but to the main performances as well. Cruise’s Irish accent is certainly something to get past, but it isn’t badly realized – we just aren’t used to hearing him with the accent. The fact that he doesn’t look Irish only exasperates the problem. Still, it is one of the more emotional performances of Cruise’s career which is saying a lot, and it’s nice to see his character have a true arch that we rarely get in big blockbuster movies. Kidman is less memorable as the spoiled rich girl who decides to throw it all away for love. As great an actress as she turned into later in her career (Eyes Wide Shut, Birth, many others) it’s interesting to see her still mainly relying on her looks and charm in her early career. It’s a smart move on her part, but the characterization suffers from it.
Overall, I can’t help but recommend Far and Away. It’s an astonishingly beautiful (shot in 65mm format), but gritty enough portrayal of the immigrant land rush inspired by the Manifest Destiny doctrine adapted in the 19th Century. This historical time period is strangely absent from current cinema, and the film refreshingly puts it front and center. Even if the players involved don’t look back on the film as fondly as one would think, it’s negative reputation is clearly overblown. It is indeed the perfect lazy Saturday afternoon movie