Happy Ever Afters

Happy Ever Afters

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Hot on the heels of Leap Year and not so very long after P.S. I Love You, two American attempts to do romance Irish style, comes Happy Ever Afters, a romcom that's Irish through and through and that might give fans of Hollywood's output a shock or two. It might not always hit the mark, with its complicated plotline sometimes descending into hopeless farce, but there's real heart here and characters who are easy to feel for.

Sally Hawkins is Maura, a hard-bitten heroine with a mean sense of humour and a young daughter who means the world to her. In order to make sure they can keep their home, she's agreed to marry Wilson (Ariyon Bakare), who is desperate to get immigration officials off his back and stay in Ireland with his girlfriend. Meanwhile Freddie (Tom Riley) is about to marry Sophie (Jade Yourell) for the second time, but whether they actually love each other or are simply feeling pressured into it is up for question. Plus their assorted friends and relatives have their own dramas to deal with, Sophie's father is threatening to kill Freddie, and Maura's daughter is gradually figuring out the truth.

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All this may sound par for the course, but the writing is tighter than usual and manages to string it all together effectively, so that there are some genuine surprises and things don't always turn out the way you'd expect. In places it sags and is held together by mediocre musical numbers and shots of people dancing, but as part of what it's saying seems to be that weddings are often a bit rubbish, this makes its own contribution to the atmosphere.

Romcoms often make intriguing moral barometers, and it's interesting to see how much has changed with this one and how much it's prepared to challenge. Jokes about the church and the guarda, irreverent though they are, would not have been out of place twenty years ago, but it's interesting to see Irish comedy tackling the issue of racism, even if it does mean that the immigration officers are often reduced to mere buffoons. What might once have been played as an exploitative business relationship is here given a human dimension and the audience is expected to sympathise with Wilson. Indeed, one of the moral lessons the film gives us is that Maura needs to learn to sympathise with people besides herself and her daughter before she can find what she's looking for. Meanwhile, Sophie needs to learn not to hang onto her man but to stand up to her mother, and the kid needs to learn to express the real affection she's buried beneath layers of resentment.

It's the kid, played by Sinead Maguire, who is the real find here, solid and three dimensional and often the most charismatic person on screen. She provides a focal point at time when the adults are at their most difficult. But all the main performances are good, with the two leads evincing the kind of charm Hollywood can only dream of, despite the fact they spend half the time shouting at each other.

Happy Ever Afters is the first proper feature from writer-director Stephen Burke and it does show, but it also shows a lot of promise. Rather than simply soaking itself in the conventions of romance, it has a lot of pithy comments to make about the difference between social fantasies and lived realities, and it's altogether more moving as a result.

Reviewed on: 19 Mar 2010
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Complications ensue when two wedding receptions are held in the same venue.
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