Dir: Goran Paskaljevic. Ireland/ Italy/ UK/ France. 2001. 100 mins.
The main trouble with Harry is its peculiar cocktail of ingredients. Based on a Chinese short story, scripted in first Serbian, then French and eventually English, directed by a Serb, Goran Paskaljevic, produced by an Irish-Italian-French-British team and set in Ireland, the result is never quite as weird and wonderful as its cosmopolitan origins and surreal title lead one to expect. It's a Europudding with a dash of sweet-and-sour custard.
Originally written in Serbian, with a view to being shot in Yugoslavia, the story was relocated to rural Ireland in the Twenties after political events made it impossible for the director to work on his home turf. A new version of the script was prepared by Paskaljevic and his wife, this time in French, before co-writer Stephen Walsh came in to translate it into English.
The film intends to be a timeless, mythical allegory, and its ironic critique of meaningless hatred could certainly apply to a wide range of contexts, including both Ireland and the Balkans: Paskaljevic says he based Harry partly on his own country's former star anti-hero, Slobodan Milosevic.
But this particular collection of more or (as in Harry's case) less loveable village cranks steers perilously close to stereotypical Oirish whimsy. Still, it's an element which may be jarring above all for Irish and English viewers. Elsewhere the film could carve out a modest career on the international festival circuit and in specialist locations, attracting admirers who remember Paskaljevic's bittersweet 1995 comedy Someone Else's America or the savage brilliance of his last film, The Powder Keg (released in some territories as Cabaret Balkan).
Harry (Colm Meaney) is an embittered cabbage farmer tormented by the loss of his favourite son at the hands of the English and the death soon afterwards of his broken-hearted wife. His morbid thoughts find expression in a recurring nightmare in which he's transformed into a huge, magnificent tree, then chopped down to make coffins.
To give fresh meaning to his empty life, Harry decides to dedicate himself to malice and, reasoning that "a man is measured by his enemies," he chooses for his adversary no less than the most charismatic, powerful man in the village: George (Adrian Dunbar), publican, matchmaker, shopkeeper and all-round wheeler-dealer.
George, a genial womaniser, remains for his part blissfully unaware of this vendetta being waged against him and proceeds with his plan to broker a marriage between Harry's sensitive second son, Gus (Cillian Murphy), and a new girl on his books (Kerry Condon), whom he also takes as his mistress. Yet Harry's private war knows no bounds. At first comic in its arbitrariness and absurdity, it leads him into total devastation. The more he suffers, the more he wallows in his own agony.
Despite its weaknesses, the film is shot with great style and vigour, and makes evocative use of the rainy, desolate, boggy landscapes. And it is powered by some terrific performances, foremost among them Meaney. Widely - though, as it turns out, wrongly - expected to be named Best Actor in Venice, where the film received its world premiere in competition, he makes Harry into an outsize force of nature, whose tragi-comic dementia eventually assumes a King Lear-like grandeur.
Murphy and Condon also make their mark, the former as a stuttering, apparently simple-minded figure with an unsuspected strength of character, the latter as a meek ingenue who discovers her sexuality at the able hands of George, and her capacity for love in a difficult marriage.
Prod cos: Paradox, Cattleya, Film and General productions, MACT.
Co-prods: Istituto Luce, Bavaria, Eurimages.
Int'l Sales: Bavaria.
Exec prods: Giovanni Stabilini, Marco Chimenz, Umberto Sambuco.
Prods: Riccardo Tozzi, Liam O'Neill, Clive Parsons, Antoine de Clermont-Tonnerre.
Scr: Goran Paskaljevic, Stephen Walsh, Christine Gentet Paskaljevic, based on the story Lao Dan by Yang Zhengguang.
Dop: Milan Spasic.
Prod des: Lesley Oakley.
Ed: Petar Putnikovic.
Music: Stefano Arnaldi.
Main cast: Colm Meaney, Adrian Dunbar, Cillian Murphy, Kerry Condon.