During the recent Presidential elections in Ireland there was a slightly tongue in cheek campaign to get Martin Sheen to enter the race. This was specifically related to his portrayal of Jed Bartlet in The West Wing but there was also the fact that Martin Sheen seems intrinsically related to Ireland. He has studied and made films here. He is a man that we trust. There is even a small chance he would have got a decent amount of votes had he threw his hat in the ring. The point being one that most film fans already knew all too well: a film will invariably be better if he has a role in it. After watching Stella Days the temptation is to wonder just how bad the film would have been without him.
Sheen plays Father Barry, a priest in small town Ireland in the 1950s. He is an educated and forward thinking priest who has a desire to return to Rome. This hope is dashed by the vindictive and vain Bishop Hegarty (a fine Tom Hickey) who wants Father Barry to raise funds to build a new modernist church. Father Barry is a film buff and decides to set up a small cinema to raise money. He does this with help from the new local school teacher Tim (Trystan Grayville) who is himself attracted to a married woman (the husband is largely absent).
This is a story of the old versus the new. The opening scene has ESB workers putting up poles in the snow to bring electricity to the small town. This is a fascinating time, when you can see modern Ireland begin to light up but sadly it doesn’t really get explored. In its place comes Brendan McSweeney (Stephen Rea) a local businessman and soon to be politician who wants to keep the old ways intact and therefore becomes Father Barry’s nemesis. Thus the scene is set for a battle of wills for the soul of the town.
Stella Days wants to be an ambitious and the central themes are certainly interesting. It wants to delve deep into the history of Ireland and how it is shaped by the encroachment of technology be it with electricity, cinema or kitchen appliances, but it never really does this. Indeed some of the early scenes of women looking at kitchen appliances with suspicion almost seem to be lifted from an unseen Father Ted episode with Mrs. Doyle in the role of the bewildered housewife. The other real problem for the first hour or so is the muddled narrative and the clichéd storytelling. This prevents the film from getting at those ideas with any real affect which lessens the film’s impact. Add to this the fact that Stephen Rea is completely wasted in what is probably the least interesting role I have seen him in. His politician is just a cipher for the film to lay out its ‘keep the town traditional’ ideas and nothing else. This is a real pity as Rea is usually a terrific actor with better material than he has been given here.
Things take a darker turn during the final act and the film finally comes to life. There are some genuinely emotional moments in the final third of the film that go some way to rescuing the film as a whole. Sheen is absolutely terrific here, adding a real sense of danger to the kindly priest role that perhaps would have been expected. He is a scholarly priest and there is the feeling that he looks down on the people of the town as uneducated fools. He is outwardly kind but it is his eyes that some of his real feelings are betrayed. If only the other characters in the film were as well developed. Thaddeus O’ Sullivan directs in a workmanlike fashion, giving Stella Days the feel of a TV drama rather than anything cinematic. For a film that is partly about cinema, this is disappointing. Overall Stella Days is an earnest film that never successfully captures the times that it is set. For that I would recommend a watching of Neil Jordan’s The Butcher Boy.