Cal (1984)


(director: Pat O’Connor; screenwriter: Bernard Maclaverty/from the novel by Bernard Maclaverty; cinematographer: Jerzy Zielinski; editor: Michael Bradsell; music: Mark Knopfler; cast: John Lynch (Cal), Helen Mirren (Marcella), Donal McCann (Shamie, Cal’s father), John Kavanagh (Skeffington, IRA leader), Ray McAnally (Cyril Dunlop), Stevan Rimkus (Crilly); Runtime: 102; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Stuart Craig /David Puttnam; Warner Home Video; 1984)
“Has its powerful moments.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Cal is a doomed love story set in the 1980s in the troubled Northern Ireland. No story set in modern Ulster County is without political concerns. It’s based on the 1983 novel by Bernard Maclaverty, who is also the screenwriter. Director Pat O’Connor, in his debut, keeps his eye on the human tragedy rather than on on the partisan lines drawn between Catholic and Protestant.

A reluctant Cal (John Lynch) gets roped into driving a van for an IRA raid in which a reservist Protestant policeman is killed and his father wounded by gunman Crilly (Stevan Rimkus), a schoolmate of Cal’s. Cal is a 19-year-old shy, sensitive young man who lives in a Protestant neighborhood with his father Shamie (Donal McCann), who works in the abattoir. By coincidence Cal is attracted to the older new librarian, Marcella (Helen Mirren), the widow of the slain cop. Marcella is a Catholic (half-Italian, half-Irish), who lives in his neighborhood. Not willing to work in the slaughter-house with his dad after trying it, he takes odd jobs from Marcella’s prosperous in-laws. After Cal’s home is burned to the ground by Loyalists and his father has a breakdown (his fall into madness is the film’s most powerful symbolic moment), he moves into a cottage on the estate of Marcella’s in-laws and they begin an affair. The bottled-up youth loves her but can’t overcome his guilt to rejoice in their love; Marcella also feels psychologically wounded by her war-torn country and is just as alienated from society as Cal. The message is that there’s no room for anyone to be neutral in such a bitter religious conflict; one must chose sides or be left isolated, or worse.

Though competently told, it never gets over its heavy dose of symbolism it pours over the great divide and how contrived is the love story. Still this BBC presentation has its powerful moments, a well-written script and a strong performance by Mirren and a solid one by Lynch.