After viewing this film from Luvvie-in-Chief (Lord) Richard Attenborough, one might believe briefly that old-fashioned filmmaking is alive and well. The only problem is that the movie did virtually no business here after earning wishy-washy reviews and it went straight to disc in the U.S. While on a number of levels it comes across as a soppy chick-flick, it is really more of a curate's egg with good and bad elements. In its favour is the unusual ensemble casting of Shirley MacLaine, Christopher Plummer, Neve Campbell, Brenda Fricker and Pete Postlewaite; against this talented group the director has cast a number of unknowns in equally important roles, some of whom seem to be struggling with the exercise. Attenborough also expects us to accept an overly convoluted story, made worse by unbelievable coincidences and unnecessary complications.
The film opens at the funeral of seventy-something MacLaine's husband. As daughter Campbell delivers the eulogy to a group of veterans, his widow is sitting outside the church refusing to grieve. The tale constantly weaves back and forth between the present day (which is actually 1991) in MacLaine's Michigan home town and a separate group of characters in terrorist-threatened Belfast. The same characters are also depicted in 1944, focusing on the events that will eventually join the divergent storylines to give the viewer a nice tidy ending.
The young MacLaine is played by Mischa Barton, an attractive but not overly talented actress, who displays some quite unnecessary nudity, presumably as the director's sop to modern "taste". She is madly in love with a young farmer who is building a house for her, to make him appear more suitable to her disapproving family, but she is also the idol of his two best friends. When the three go off to war after Ethel Ann and her Teddy go through a not legally-binding marriage ceremony, he makes them promise that they will look after her, should he not return (which he doesn't). Unfortunately he chooses for her next husband the more stable and dull one that MacLaine finally marries some years later and not the derring-do one (who grows up to be Christopher Plummer) who has also loved her all these years. Unfortunately no one bothered to tell her that these promises had been made or that her own promise to never love another was what has been ruining her life.
Meanwhile back in Belfast, Postlewaite has been digging up the hillside where Teddy's plane crashed back in '44, unearthing bits of fuselage and gear. He is joined by young Jimmy Reilly who lives with grandma Flicker, who was obviously the town bicycle way back then. Played by an unknown TV actor Martin McCann, he is not the brightest candle in the church, but as his is probably the lead role, it is just as well that he has a cheery, likeable presence. He finds Teddy's "wedding" ring and knows just where to telephone to tell MacLaine the good news. There is then a completely unnecessary sub-plot about the Ulster Defense Force and the IRA, with young Jimmy being caught between them. Advised to 'cool' things and to make himself scarce for a while, where does he choose to go? Michigan of course. He arrives with not just the ring but a whole suitcase full of airplane parts to give to the twice-widowed MacLaine and she in turn tears down the cladding of the room to reveal her 1944 pinboard of photos and newspaper clippings, still just as clear and colorful as they were nearly fifty years earlier. Campbell storms off in disgust at these revelations -- and I nearly did too!
Finally we end up back in Belfast where MacLaine has arrived at Grandma Reilly's doorstep, just in time for a terrorist bomb. As she grieves over a dying squaddie lying out in the road, Postlewaite reveals the true circumstances of that fatal plane crash, and Plummer arrives to reveal his feelings, all of which is meant to finally close the ring of the tale. It ends with the elderly couple cavorting on an Ulster hillside to sentimental musical strains. Although Plummer gives his usual consummate performance and although Campbell too has her moments, the rest of the starry cast seem to be phoning in their parts, and MacLaine in particular seems to be wondering to herself "what on earth am I doing in this sentimental morass?".