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Those Crazy Celts.

By Jesse Fox Mayshark

JUNE 28, 1999:  How did the Celts get cuddly? As anyone who's seen Braveheart knows, the tribes that populated Scotland and Ireland—after being chased out of just about every other country in Europe—were a pretty rough bunch. Stout-hearted, maybe, and prone to fevered bouts of poetic self-mythologizing, but not anyone's idea of adorable.

In the American imagination, though, and often in the sentimental Celtic imagination as well, the hard-drinking, hard-up people of those craggy lands have morphed into a race of canny, twinkle-eyed folk who are always ready to teach life lessons to their more worldly visitors. Several movies of recent years have revolved around this theme, with often watery results (e.g. The Matchmaker).

The latest Celtic village vehicle, Waking Ned Devine (1998, PG), is so pro forma that it barely even bothers going through its clichéd motions. The residents of a small Irish coastal village discover one of their neighbors has won a huge lottery jackpot. The problem is, he's dead. So they conspire to fool the authorities and divvy up the prize among themselves. There are all the requisite eccentrics and busybodies, but the set-up is so slight and the pay-off so nonchalant that the film feels like a quickly sketched outline rather than a finished work. Cute but not clever, not so much gentle as wispy, it looks like Guinness but tastes like Coors Lite.

The best of these movies—the one that arguably set the template—is Scottish director Bill Forsyth's Local Hero (1983, PG), in which a Houston oil executive (Peter Riegert) becomes enchanted with a small town while trying to convince the natives to sell their shoreline. The film balances left-field looniness with a well-observed sense of local tradition and even mystery, and it doesn't sentimentalize its characters. The biggest stumbling block turns out to be not whether the villagers will sell, but how much they want in return. Burt Lancaster gave the most memorable performance of his later career as Riegert's tough-talking, star-gazing Texan boss. And Mark Knopfler's evocative, reverb-soaked score stands as one of the benchmarks of the genre.

For a different and probably more telling view of small Celtic towns, see Lars von Trier's hothouse tragedy Breaking the Waves (1996, R). In a coastal, fiercely Calvinist Scottish village in the 1970s, a young woman (a compelling if over-the-top performance by Emily Watson) falls in love with a Norwegian oil rig worker (Stellan Skarsgard). When he's paralyzed in an accident that she's convinced she caused (via her obsessive prayers for him to spend more time at home), she embarks on a series of sordid sexual encounters that she thinks will somehow heal him. This enrages the puritanical community, and she finds herself outcast and headed for inevitable self-destruction. It's a dour fable of intolerance and redemption, and it works both in spite and because of von Trier's passion for melodrama.


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