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MOVIE REVIEW : 'Into the West' a Charming, Heroic Flight of Fancy


At the opening and close of "Into the West" (selected theaters), there's an archetypal, radiant movie image: a snowy white horse streaking or cantering across a moonlit Irish beach. That horse--white mane flying, hoofs clopping a fiery tattoo--becomes the movie's dominant metaphor: an equine image of freedom, beauty, supernal power and grace. And, even though that's the sort of highly charged, over-used symbol that can soar into poetry or tumble into cliche, in this film it works.

As envisioned by writer Jim Sheridan and director Mike Mewell, the mysterious white horse--whose name in Gaelic means "Land of Eternal Youth"--turns into a true fairy-tale harbinger: romanticized, heroic. And the picture itself leaps over all its obstacles and becomes splendid family entertainment. Packed with keening witchery and wild delight, "Into the West" should delight the susceptible, even as, perhaps, it annoys the jaded. Yet this picture gives us what we expect from an Irish fairy tale. It opens up the whole vein of humor and darkness mined by writers from Lord Dunsany to Synge and Yeats: grit and lyricism, earthiness and exhilaration, the tear that tumbles down past a smile.

"Into the West's" magical white horse is the property of its main child protagonists, Ossie and Tito Reilly, played by the marvelously engaging, rowdy and scapegrace pair Ciaran Fitzgerald and Ruaidhri Conroy. Here, Ossie and Tito become an outlaw pair on the run, pursued from city to countryside to sea, by a variety of authority figures: the boy's drunken, loving father (Gabriel Byrne as Papa Reilly), the brutal cops who track them down, and the evil entrepreneur who wants to steal their horse and clean up at the steeplechase races.

We may suspect early on that the horse has supernatural origins: It emerges on a moonlit beach and actually seeks the boys out. But, for Ossie and Tito, their horse also embodies the movie fantasies they love best--American cowboy pictures.

The movie puts the animal in one outlandish place after another--from the Reilly's shabby apartment to hectic city streets to an empty movie-house, where boys and horse take in a car-chase thriller. And these weird settings underscore one of the main anachronisms of modern life: the fantasies of freedom and flight, engendered in a world scarred by poverty and urbanization.

The actors are all fine: a crisp, fierce crew headed by the boy protagonists and their majestic horse, including Byrne, David Kelly as a ferocious grandfather, Ellen Barkin as Reilly's gutsy Gypsy wench.

Yet there's something that doesn't jell completely in the director-writer team: Newell, who made the dark class-crossing romance "Dance With a Stranger" and the blithe feminist "Enchanted April," and Sheridan, the writer-director of "My Left Foot" and "The Field." Sheridan probably wanted to direct this script as well--and the virtuosic shine and brilliance of the images Newell gets with his excellent cinematographer, documentary veteran Tom Sigel, may be a bit more lush than he would have wanted.

But together they've crafted a wind-swept tale that suggests that in a terrible world, freedom, even though pressed, may magically break through. In a movie year strangely dominated by the perspectives of childhood, "Into the West" (MPAA-rated PG) suggests something else too: It tells us that the instincts and intuition of those children are vital--especially in a world gone rotten, cruel or corrupt, packaging its dreams, marketing and exploiting its magic.

It's a view both sentimental and harsh. Yet, in the end, there's something crazily comforting in its mix of pessimism and dreaminess. The movie's lyrical energy eases us along, until, as in many fairy tales, dream fuses with nightmare. The dream does win out in the end, perhaps only because it has to, because, here, "happily ever after" is one of the rules of the game. But it's no cliche, since the nightmare remains as well: the pain that sweeps over the boys and us on the high scary cliffs, even as freedom and the sea beckon in the distance.

'Into the West' Gabriel Byrne: Papa Reilly Ciaran Fitzgerald: Ossie Reilly Ruaidhri Conroy: Tito Reilly Ellen Barkin: Kathleen

A Miramax Family Films presentation in association with Majestic Films International/Film Four International, of a Little Bird/Parallel Films production. Director Mike Newell. Producer Jonathan Cavendish, Tim Palmer. Executive producer James Mitchell. Screenplay by Jim Sheridan, David Keating. Cinematographer Tom Sigel. Editor Peter Boyle. Costumes Consolata Boyle. Music Patrick Doyle. Production design Jamie Leonard. Art director Mark Geraghty. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.

MPAA-rated PG

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