I dithered about writing about this one. After all, the movie stars quite a few well-known people. The author of the book, Maeve Binchy, is making quite a lot writing possibly dozens of books about the dark truths hidden in Ireland, mostly in the ’50s and ’60s but not always. Oh, sure, I didn’t see it mentioned much anymore, but after all there are an awful lot of movies out there. Is it really so obscure as all that? And then I discovered that not only is it not available streaming anywhere—even for rent—but my TV, when asked to search for it, has no idea what I’m talking about and gives me results for a thriller from fifteen years ago instead.
Bernadette “Benny” Hogan is turning ten. Her mother is requiring her to invite all the girls from school to her party, even Eve Malone, the strange, quiet orphan who lives in the convent. To their mutual surprise, the girls hit it off and become close friends. Eve understands Benny’s frustration with her parents’ expectations. Benny understands Eve’s anger at her mother’s family and love for the nuns. Benny knows she will be going to college; Eve dreams of it and is instead sent to secretarial school. Things happen that end with both girls at University College Dublin.
At college, they meet the glamorous Nan Mahon, the handsome and charming Jack Foley, and the mad Aidan Lynch. To Benny’s own astonishment, Jack falls for her. Meanwhile, Nan is using Eve’s mother’s family for her own ambitions—Eve’s mother was from the Big House, and Eve has been raised by her working class mother to believe that she is destined for the upper classes. Nan gets into a secret relationship with Eve’s cousin Simon Westward. And finally, Benny’s parents expect her to marry Sean Walsh, the assistant at her father’s clothing shop.
In fact, there’s a lot of plot that gets cut from the book—which has a lot going on—for the movie. We do get Benny (Minnie Driver) and Eve (Geraldine O’Rawe) going from Knockglen to Dublin. Benny does attract the handsome Jack (Chris O’Donnell). Nan (Saffron Burrows) is pursuing Simon Westward (Colin Firth) and the upper classes. And the smarmy Sean Walsh (Alan Cumming) fully expects to marry Benny and take over. However, they make the girls childhood friends and have Nan move to Dublin later, they make Sean Walsh even worse, and they change the ending in a way that frankly undercuts Benny’s growth.
The book is a lot about class and religion. Benny is at the top of Knockglen’s social hierarchy, and that means she’s not good enough for Jack. The Westwards are not part of Irish society at all but part of the remnants of English landlord culture, and that’s the life Nan has been raised to believe she will join. Eve’s father had been the caretaker at the convent and her mother was the daughter of the Big House, and their marriage and subsequent deaths were the shocking secret of the town, spoken of in whispers.
There’s also the creep of modernity even into small-town Ireland. The book features two characters who don’t make it to the movie. There is Clodagh, niece of the woman who owns the dress shop, and Fonsie, nephew of the man who owns the fish and chip shop. Fonsie is probably Alphonso or similar, but he’s a hip, jazzy, funny guy who dresses like a teddy boy. Clodagh is similar. At one point, they are dressed in a way they think is quietly dignified and are refused service at the hotel bar for being inappropriate. The Hogans’ business will fail if it isn’t modernized, but Benny doesn’t want to get involved because she doesn’t want to be who her parents expect of her.
If I’m talking more about the book, well, the book is comfort reading for me. Part of it is that I can sympathize with Benny—she’s a big, friendly, awkward girl who is always convinced people are talking about her. Beyond that, though, what’s sad about Benny is that she has been raised to have expectations from life that her parents don’t actually expect her to lead that life. They send her to college because they’re proud of their ability to send her to college, but they want her to marry her father’s assistant and do the same thing her mother has always done. She isn’t expected to marry a college man and see what she can really do with her life.
One of the problems with the movie is that it misses what drives Sean Walsh. He’s shown to be sexually attracted to larger women and therefore obsessed with Benny, but in the book, he has no real opinion of Benny one way or another. He simply doesn’t think of her as a person or an object of attraction. She’s part of his—here it comes again—class aspiration. Sean Walsh is expressly said to come from a poor farming family; like Nan, he aspires to a higher class than he’s born to. Nan doesn’t care about Simon Westward as a person; Sean Walsh doesn’t care about Benny as a person.
In general, I like the movie; don’t get me wrong. In several cases, the Irish accents are genuinely terrible—Colin Firth doesn’t even try, which honestly makes sense for his character. Why a person from Winnetka, Illinois, was cast as the son of a upper middle class Irish household is beyond me. But I’m also not going to criticize casting Ciarán Hinds, even if he’s from Belfast and not Dublin. Ditto Geraldine O’Rawe. I’d have been happy if they’d actually cast a plus-size Irish woman as Benny, but it’s Minnie Driver’s first movie and really launched her and, okay, fine.
Okay, I can see myself buying the movie on DVD at some point. It’s sweet and charming and wholesome, even if, again, it hamstrings Benny in some ways that really annoy me. There’s a reason, though, that I own about a dozen Maeve Binchy books. Sure, I’m curious what Benny did after the bonfire at the end of the book, but I also love that she’s spent the decades since writing that scene exploring other people. She explores the darker secrets of Irish culture, the ones people didn’t talk about, but also shows real love of all kinds. I’m quite clear that Clodagh and Fonsie lived happily ever after.
For next month, we’ll be joining Jodie Foster, Helen Hayes, and David Niven for Christmas at Candleshoe and its connection to one of my favourite movies. Copies of the book are hard to find and not cheap; help me out by supporting my Patreon or Ko-fi!