At the time I first saw Circle of Friends back when it came to video in the mid 1990s I didn’t realize that I was seeing a cast that would go on to do many more things. All I knew was that Chris O’Donnell from Scent of a Woman (1992) was playing an Irishman in a movie where a bunch of people in their mid to late 20s were cast as college freshmen. This was the first film in which I saw Minnie Driver, Saffron Burrows, Alan Cumming, and Aiden Gillen (aka Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish on Game of Thrones). The movie also has early appearances from Colin Firth and Ciaran Hinds (aka “King Beyond the Wall” Mance Rayder on Game of Thrones). He plays a professor.
As I alluded to, no one in the cast looks very believable as 17 and 18 year old college freshmen, but that’s something you just have to go with. The fact that most of the faces were new to me at the time made it a little easier to swallow. And now, twenty years later, they all look so much younger than I’m used to seeing them.
The story is set in the 1950s in
Ireland. At this time and place there are strong
social and religious objections to having sex, but that doesn’t mean that
college men and women don’t think about it constantly. The main character, and the heart of the
film, is Bernadette “Benny” Hogan (Minnie Driver). She is overweight (not really, but go with
it) and she feels she is ugly. She is
best friends with Eve Malone (Geraldine O’Rawe), an orphan who was raised by
The two of them start college away from home in
Dublin, although Benny’s
family lays a guilt trip on her to live at home because they don’t want her
away from their control. Nan stays in a convent.
they run into a girl they knew from back home – Nan Mahon (Saffron Burrows) –
and she has changed herself into quite the social climber. She was always very beautiful and she is
using that beauty now to try to snag a rich, older playboy (Colin Firth).
At college Benny meets Jack Foley (Chris O’Donnell), a handsome pre-med student. Eve meets Jack’s friend Aidan Lynch (Aiden Gillen). Eve and Aidan start to date, but Benny can’t screw up the courage to let Jack know that she likes him. Eve practically forces her to attend a dance (and wear a dress that shows her ample bosom – there’s a funny scene where she’s trying to applaud, she notices her cleavage moving, and she tries to minimize it). Jack and Benny do start to date, but her parents want her to marry Sean Walsh (Alan Cumming), an unlikable man who works in her father’s shop.
In the meantime Nan figures the best way to entrap her playboy is to get pregnant by him, even though he is expected to marry another woman and had told Nan that he and
Nan do not
have a future together because of it.
When she tells him she’s pregnant she figures he will “do the right
thing” and propose. Instead, he “does
the rich playboy thing” and offers to give her money to go away to England and get an abortion (something that was
illegal in Ireland).
Her marriage plans ruined, and now pregnant in 1950s
sets her sights on the next best guy – Benny’s boyfriend Jack. He has been semi-abandoned by Benny since she
had to leave college to attend to things at home. He’s drowning his sorrows and she seduces
him. A little while later she tells him
her pregnancy is from having sex with him.
Jack IS an honorable man and offers to marry her – something she accepts
even though she knows it will destroy Benny.
As I mentioned, Benny is the heart of the movie and Driver does a good job in the role. They do have her repeating the fact that she’s ugly a few too many times, but that’s the writing, not her performance. The story is based on the book of the same name by Maeve Binchy. I have not read it so I do not know how closely the movie sticks to the novel.
The one fault I would find with the writing is the broad attempt to appeal to girls by hitting us over the head with: the ugly girl is with the handsome, rich, nice, athletic, successful, popular boy and never has to have sex with him; the pretty girl does have sex and is evil; all the good men are very handsome; and the ugly men are not just unwelcome, they are in some cases even criminal. It’s the female writer’s equivalent of the male writer’s “hooker with a heart of gold”.
Reportedly Driver gained 30 pounds for the role in order to be fat, but she’s almost six feet tall, and an actress, so all it really did was make her a healthy weight and give her some great cleavage. I’ve seen her in other roles and I don’t think she has looked better than she has in Circle of Friends when she was supposed to be playing an ugly girl.
The main reason to see Circle of Friends is for the character of Benny. She is quite appealing and most people will probably be rooting for her. Another reason to see it now would be to watch a number of familiar faces when they were starting out in their careers. Unless there is something specific in what I described that you feel you would hate, I highly recommend this film.
Chip’s Rating: 4 out of 5 stars