In Pat O’Connor’s Circle of Friends, a young man’s father offers him some time-honored advice on choosing a mate: “There’s a lot to be said for these big, soft girls,” he announces. What’s interesting about this anachronistic comment is that the film isn’t quite poking fun at the speaker. Indeed, his remark is a fair summary of the film’s conclusion.
Set in 1950s Ireland and adapted by Andrew Davies from Maeve Binchy’s flowery novel of the same name, Circle is about Benny (Minnie Driver), Eve (Geraldine O’Rawe), and Nan (Saffron Burrows), a trio of small-town girlhood friends. Anticipating its theme of religion-mandated restraint, the film opens with their confirmation ceremony, then segues to the year they enter college in Dublin. From the first, the girls are categorized according to their looks: “Nan was beautiful,” Benny announces in voice-over, while she says of herself, “I was an only child, but mother fed me as if I were two.” (Though spared the drama of being extremely attractive or extremely unattractive, Eve has a novel distinction of her own—she’s an orphan reared by nuns.)
The girls start college, and promptly find themselves in a university hall listening to the first in a series of talks on “The Sexual Life of Savages.” Cut to a fierce rugby match and the bout of spirited flirting that follows. (Ciaran Hinds, who plays the anthropology prof delivering this through-line of a lecture, was last seen as one of December Bride‘s epically repressed brothers.) Its savagery under way, the film disagreeably suggests that physiognomy is fate, and the girls’ actions play themselves out accordingly: Homely but utterly likable Benny begins an improbable romance with resident dreamboat Jack (Chris O’Donnell), while stunning but utterly unlikable Nan attempts to snare Simon (Colin Firth), a wealthy cad.
O’Connor (Cal, A Month in the Country) credibly recreates both the stifling atmosphere of pre-sexual-revolution Ireland and the period in people’s lives that follows sexual awakening but precedes actual intercourse. The friends have extremely ingenuous sex talks that seem better suited to junior-high than college (Benny wonders if “doing it” isn’t like “someone else putting their finger up your nose”). Revealing period signifiers crop up everywhere—Nan’s swain refers nervously to a dusty tome called The Art of Married Love, while Jack discovers that though you can’t buy condoms at drugstores in Ireland, you can in England.
Were it not for its reliance on the clichés surrounding female appearance, Circle would be endearing. But its frequent references to Benny’s ugliness quickly become tiresome: She calls herself “a whale” and “a rhinoceros,” while her unctuous spurned suitor chooses the more traditional “fat cow.” Since Driver is a lovely woman of average weight, such put-downs create the impression that she and all her acquaintances are experiencing some sort of mass delusion. (Worse is the film’s implicit assumption that female characters who don’t resemble Burrows, a former fashion model, are unattractive.) How Benny and Nan make use of their burgeoning sexuality is determined by timeworn truisms based on the girls’ respective looks: The plain one proves to be “marrying material,” while the beautiful one is sexually predatory. In short, Circle doesn’t say anything that hasn’t already been said in Jimmy Soul’s screamingly dated early-’60s hit “If You Wanna Be Happy.”
Dolores Claiborne has a great catch phrase—“Sometimes being a bitch is all a woman has to hold on to”—but that’s about it.
Adapted by Tony Gilroy from a Stephen King novel and directed by Taylor Hackford (An Officer and a Gentleman, Against All Odds), Dolores‘ musty Hitchcockian plot is upstaged by the tale’s technically savvy presentation. Dolores Claiborne (Kathy Bates) is a tough, no-nonsense woman who’s accused of killing the elderly widow for whom she worked as a housekeeper for two decades. Her daughter Selena (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is a pill-popping Esquire magazine writer who returns home for the first time in 15 years when her mother is charged with murder. It’s clear from the outset that both mother and daughter harbor terrible secrets, and as they interact, Dolores segues in and out of the past.
Often past and present appear on the screen simultaneously—the latter bright and color-saturated, the former lusterless and pallid. The past to which Dolores returns is dominated by her brutal, alcoholic husband (David Strathairn, fresh from playing wimps in The River Wild and Losing Isaiah) and the imperious boss (Judy Parfitt) who’s responsible for the aforementioned catch phrase. (The strange dance of mutual dependence and resentment between Parfitt and Bates as employer and employee is the only emotionally resonant aspect of the story.) Dolores’ family is clearly slated to implode, but before it does the film touches on a veritable dictionary of inflammatory contemporary issues—substance abuse, wife beating, recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse, and assisted suicide, to name a few. Perhaps fortunately, the filmmakers do not feel obligated to actually comment on any of these phenomena.
In the canon of movies based on Stephen King novels, Dolores is certainly the most stylish, but the solar eclipse that serves as the film’s centerpiece is no match for a murderous St. Bernard or a homicidal vintage Chevy.