Film Review: Stella Days

Well-meaning and well-done for what it is: overly familiar material lacking in viewer allure.

In 1950s small-town Ireland, Father Daniel Barry (Martin Sheen), stuck there against his will, struggles to bring change to a place mired in traditional Catholicism and an aversion to anything new, which even includes electricity. He yearns for a post in the Vatican library, but his superior, Bishop Hegarty (Tom Hickey), forces him to stay to raise funds for a new church. Barry, an amateur filmmaker and devotee of cinema, dreams of opening a movie house, but comes up against a powerful adversary in the fanatically conservative politician Brendan McSweeney (Stephen Rea), who not only loathes movies for their corrupt influence but also Barry himself, whom he accuses of base egomania.

There is also a subplot involving a parishioner, Molly (Marcella Plunkett), who struggles to raise her little boy Joey (Joseph Sullivan), alone, in the absence of her violent, wastrel husband. She takes in a lodger, Tim (Trystan Gravelle), who both befriends Barry through their mutual movie love and inspires romantic thoughts from his landlady.

With Stella Days, Thaddeus O’Sullivan has crafted an affectionate, seriously intended film with handsome photography and period production values, but it tends to meander and is not very exciting. Much of what he focuses on seems familiar from films dating back to Leo McCarey’s Going My Way, in which Bing Crosby also tried to instill modernism in the Church and was met by codgery antagonism. The romantic angle involving that single mother whose little boy is bent on becoming a priest himself also feels musty, as do the frequent moralizing debates between Barry and McSweeney. As if to amp up the riveting tension so lacking here, O’Sullivan ladles on a lot of intrusive music which is often a weird counterpoint to the elegiac quality of his scenes. Film clips are used from the Columbia studio back catalogue—Cover Girl, From Here to Eternity, It Should Happen to You – which only emphasize, with their varied vividness, how basically dreary this new film is.

Sheen gave a highly affecting performance in Da, another deeply Irish character study, but there his character was more the passive victim of Barnard Hughes’ impressively domineering patriarch. Barry is a different prospect, more forceful and determined in his perceived mission to change things up, but Sheen seems bland and lacks the necessary weight and dynamism to make him compelling. We are shown how he was forced into the priesthood as a child by his father in some rather clumsy, obvious flashbacks photographed in a drained palette “to suggest the past.” Sheen seems not so much tortured by this undesired life path as merely mournfully resigned. His interests in film and opera give his character some shading, but of the real, personal desires he may have also sacrificed, we aren’t given a clue. (He could have been gay, for all we know.)

The rest of the cast performs ably enough, and Rea seems to be thoroughly enjoying his intolerantly smug character. It’s a shame he and Sheen couldn’t have switched roles, as Rea might have better projected the inner, unswervable fire which drives this singular priest.