Posted: 11/09/1999


This Is My Father


by Del Harvey

A lonely, middle-aged teacher returns to native Ireland to search for proof of his father amongst the family secrets in this very touching story.

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Set in 1939, just before the outbreak of World War II, and in the here and now, This Is My Father is the tale of an Irish-American school teacher’s search for the father he never knew, and a better understanding of the meaning of his life. James Caan plays Kieran Johnson, the lonely school teacher who lives in Chicago, not far from his sister and her son, Jack. Sis takes care of their almost catatonic mother, Fiona.

Caan’s mother sits bedridden in her daughter’s house, her grandson Jack trying to pull her from silence by getting her to play games with the remote; she musters the strength to push the ON button with one finger so she won’t miss the latest episod of Jerry Springer. When sis complains that Jack needs a ‘man-to-man’ talking to, Caan tries to have a conversation with the boy in the privacy of the garage. Jack becomes upset and kicks one of the boxes stored there, many of Grandma Fiona’s personal and private things spilling forth. One of these is a slim book of poetry with an inscription inside the front cover that reads, “Fiona, I love you. I want to be your man. Kieran.” There is also a photograph of a very young Fiona with a man none of them has seen before. Caan puts these objects in front of his mother and tries to get an answer from her, but she will not say whether or not that is his father.

Before you know it Caan is planning a trip to ancestral Ireland, the pubescent Jack along to give sis a break. Back in the old country the two are met with equal amounts of friendliness and animosity by the locals. They stay at an old inn run by an old gypsy woman and her fey son (Colm Meany)—the gypsy knew Fiona when she was young and lovely. She also knows the story of Caan’s parents, and slowly feeds it to him over the course of the next few days. While Caan is dissecting his past, young Jack has met two young Irish lasses and is doing his best to fall in love with one of them.

The old gypsy woman tells Caan the story of Kieran O’Day (Aidan Quinn) and 17-year old Fiona Flynn (Moya Farrelly). Young Fiona had just been sent home from boarding school where she “had a bit of a row with the nuns.” Kieran O’Day was adopted at 8 years of age and carries the sadness and stigma of being a “poorhouse bastard.” He lives with his foster parents, and all of them are tenants of the Widow Flynn (Gina Moxley), a bitter woman and Fiona’s harsh, strict mother. One afternoon Fiona bumps into Kieran on the way home, and asks if he would escort her to the church dance that evening. A gentle and sweet farmer, Kieran is very pleased to be asked and touched by the gesture. They have a very nice time until a pair of local rowdies, red-headed twins, start pressuring Fiona to dance after she has told them she does not want to. Kieran steps in and must fight to protect her honor. The chaperone is outraged at Kieran’s beating the two young men and yells and Kieran and Fiona to get out and go home! Fiona’s attraction to Kieran is only deepened by his chivalry.

They soon fall madly in love, in spite of the guilt and suspicion heaped upon them by Fiona’s mother, the local church, and a fire and brimstone preacher (Stephen Rea) called in to prevent any untoward goings on. At one point Kieran is so scared by this preacher that he denies his love for Fiona, causing her great pain. But not more than a day passes before he comes to her and confesses his love for her is greater than any fear of “ruining her chaste life,” as the priest puts it. Before long they are rolling in the hay. Mother, drunken and passed out in her favorite armchair in front of the fireplace, startles herself awake and starts yelling for Fiona. When Fiona rushes in she must hide the blood that has seeped onto the front of her slip. Mother smells the sex on her and vows she will leave this country and that God-forsaken farmer!

This sets ino motion a chain of events destined to tear the lovers apart forever. Before they can even talk to each other, Kieran finds himself being investigated for rape. And Mother is sitting on Fiona, watching her every move. Although they yearn to be together, the pressure of the widow and the religious community prove to be devastating. Kieran is ignored by Fiona when they pass by because her Mother is right next to her, yelling that she had better not talk to that man! Devastated, he feels that he has been wrong and can do nothing to right his wrong, or return his lover’s heart. In despair and faced with never seeing his true love again, Kieran takes a desperate action that forever changes his and Fiona’s life and the lives of generations to come.

There are some wonderful moments in this film. There are great vignettes such as the completely unexpected appearance of an American flyer who lands on the beach near where Fiona’s car has broken down. John Cusack plays the flyer, a photographer for Life magazine, who is so tired and beat he longs only for 15 minutes of throwing his football around on the beach. All three of them spend a very happy, carefree afternoon tossing the ball on the beach and enjoying each other’s company. Moments like this give so much depth and meaning to a film, it is sad that more writers and directors do not realize this.

The film was written and directed by Aidan’s brother Paul. Another brother did the cinematography. The brothers Quinn have created an exquisite first film. Every one of the actors in this film turns in a fine performance. Most exceptional are young Moya Farrelly as 17-year old Fiona, a radiant beauty with infectious optimism. And James Caan is so subdued he is almost unrecognizable—yet powerful in his quiet, thoughtful way.

This Is My Father is a very sweet and tragic love story, and a very profound story about family and the need to understand where we come from. This Is My Father renews our faith in the human spirit and in the belief that some loves do last a lifetime. This is one of the best films of the year—in fact, of many years.

Del Harvey is the founder of Film Monthly. He lives in Chicago, is a devout Bears fan, and therefore deserving of our sympathy.

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