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In America

Reviewed By MP Bartley
Posted 11/22/03 04:32:47

"Consider my heart warmed"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Sentimentality is a dirty word in movie making. Any critic of Spielberg in particular will damn him with that one word. Robin Williams can't move without bumping into that particular criticism. And for 90% of the time, I'm with them. Sentimentality is usually sappy, cliched and syrupy, drowning any good points amovie may have. But then sometimes, when it's done well, with a light touch, it's just...right.

'In America' is one of those moments where it's just right. Jim Sheridan's semi-autobiographical story written with his family, details a family of Irish immigrants. Johnny (Paddy Considine) is a wannabe actor, Sarah (Samantha Morton) is looking for a teaching job and daughters Christy and Ariel, (Sarah and Emma Bolger) are as cute as buttons.

After securing accommodation in a hovel/flat in an apartment block more well known for junkies than anything else, they find things in America tough going. They swelter when it's hot and freeze when it's cold. They're constantly pestered for money by the drug addicts and thieves in the building, they're denied credit as they rapidly run out of funds and the only person who'll talk to them without wanting something material in return is Mateo (Djimoun Hounsou), an artist tortured with himself. There's the also the fact that they've lost a child, Franky, back in Ireland that has wounded the family deeply, each member showing grief in a different way.

Obviously, you can guess pretty much how 'In America' is going to turn out. Will true love and family ties win through at the end of the day? Will everything eventually turn out ok? If you need someone to answer these questions for you, you need to see more movies. But what stops 'In America' from being completely predictable, is the ring of authenticity that Sheridan brings to it. Johnny lugging an air conditioning unit down the middle of the road? Really happened. Sheridan is also not scared of painting this picture appropriately black when it needs to be.

It's a very moving portrayal of a couple in crisis as Johnny and Sarah try to cope with the loss of their son. Both however, don't necessarily realise how the other is or is not coping with the trauma. It's a riveting example of a couple deeply in love but also unable to communicate the pain they both feel, leading to bitterness and anger. But Sheridan ensures it never feels maudlin.

Added to that is the fact that money quickly runs out means things do take a turn for the bleakest. This though, makes the uplift seem natural and not manipulative, when it comes. A simple childs game at a fairground becomes one of the most gripping scenes you'll see all year, simply because we're made acutely aware of what's at sake. And when Christy and Ariel turn up at the school Hallowe'en party in their home-made dresses compared to everyone elses bought costume, it's impossible not to feel for them. Who hasn't felt like the poorest kid at school before?

Anchored to this are some great performances. Sarah and Emma Bolger bely their ages with superbly natural performances that never tip into overly cutesy. Hounsou gives a dignified performance that will eventually bring a tear to the eye and Morton adds another impressive portrayal to her CV. But it's Considine who is the bruised and beating heart fo the film. He's an actor that manages to bring a real presence to any role, even a small role such as last years '24 Hour Party People'. But he's excellent as Johnny and really gets across the pain of a man not only having to grieve the loss of his son, but also struggling to cope with the fact that he can't support his family and his daughters are losing sight of who he is. He doesn't want to lose face in front of his family, but that's what precisely is driving them away.

It would be easy to make it a showy performance of a wounded alpha male, but he brings a quiet intensity and sensitivity to it, more often showing more when he says little then when he says a lot. The only time his performance does falter, is when the script falls into the cliche of Johnny squaring up to Mateo because of the interest he's showing in his family. Thankfully, these histronic moments are few and far between as Sheridan is more concerned with showing real people than providing grandstanding platforms for showy actors. And he redeems himself with moments like a fire-escape confession, which if it doesn't have you blubbing like a little girl, then there is no poetry in your soul.

We all know that Sheridan has come througn this ok and gone on to make his mark with films such as 'My Left Foot' so it's probably no surprise that this is an America seen through rose-tinted glasses. Even when Johnny nearly gets robbed, the robber apologises to him. And even in the rising heat fo the summer, or the perfectly formed snowfalls, New York is given a pictoral beauty a far cry from 'Taxi Driver' for example. Possibly a case of Sheridan over-egging the nostalgia? Possibly, but considering the real-life events, forgiveable.

If 'In America' just misses out on the 5 star rating it's because it probably lacks that certain 'something' all great films need. Maybe it's because such a personal, intimate film lacks that broader appeal and scope. But whatever, it doesn't detract from the fact that 'In America' is still great. It left me and two other grown men sniffling and swallowing back lumps in our throats by the end. Sometimes great performances and a little sentimentality are all you need. If it's not quite a 'It's A Wonderful Life' for this new millenium, then it's pretty damn close and near enough.

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