Have you ever noticed that films set in Ireland feature landscapes? Patchwork green fields dotted with sheep, thatch-roofed cottages, and a jagged rocky coastline kicking up seaspray are so prevalent in such films that they seem characters unto themselves. Familiar, touristy-type images, they situate us immediately, not just literally, but also nostalgically, serving as a kind of mental shorthand for an idea of Ireland that is pastoral, rustic, and quaint. Barry Levinson’s latest film, An Everlasting Piece, opens with just such imagery. I had a little sinking feeling when I saw the sweeping landscape shots, worried that they were leading to those “Irish” characters. And so I was pleasantly surprised when that stock view of the Irish countryside was disrupted and replaced by a cheesy, decidedly un-pretty poster imploring us to “Visit Northern Ireland.” “Maybe,” I thought, “This film will be different.”
Then again, maybe not. Written by and starring Brian McEvoy, An Everlasting Piece takes place in Belfast “sometime during the 1980s,” a highly turbulent period in the ongoing conflict in Northern Ireland. Colm O’Neil (McEvoy) has just started his new job as a barber at the Ballybacky Mental Hospital, one of only 5 Catholic employees among an almost totally Catholic patient population. Colm’s girlfriend Bronagh (Anna Friel), one of the other four Catholic employees, explains the demographics to Colm. Just in case there is an audience member who hasn’t seen the news since, like, 1970, the film uses this conversation and some supposedly comic comparisons between the Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods to illustrate Colm’s inferior position in society (and by extension, the position of Belfast’s Catholics generally).
Colm’s co-worker and fellow barber is a somewhat timid, poetry-writing Protestant named George (Brian F. O’Byrne). Mismatched by politics and personalities, the two nonetheless hit it off and we have the central twosome in what will essentially be a buddy flick. Colm has been working at the hospital all of a few days when he and George come across a golden opportunity: A new patient (Billy Connolly), it turns out, formerly had a monopoly on selling toupees in Northern Ireland until he lost his mind and scalped four of his clients. Colm and George convince The Scalper, as he’s called, to turn over his client list to them. They establish their new company, “The Piece People” and using a bi-partisan approach, set out to provide youthful good looks by way of wigs to all of Northern Ireland’s bald men, Catholic and Protestant alike. Unfortunately for them, it turns out that two other guys had the same idea, and have established a rival company, “Toupee or Not Toupee.” The wig supplier meets with both companies and sets up a sales contest: whoever sells the most toupees by midnight on Christmas Eve will get the monopoly, and the other will be out of business.
Scrambling to win the contest, Colm and George work past, or at least in spite of, their prejudices: George tries to sell a toupee to a Catholic priest, using the hair’s source (nuns) as the primary selling point; Colm calls himself “as Orange as they come” for a Protestant customer. But as usually happens in buddy films, a crisis arises that threatens to divide the two for good. It’s all well and good to sell toupees to ordinary citizens, regardless of their political affiliation. But when the key to winning the contest means selling the wigs to partisan clients—balding Provisional I.R.A. soldiers looking for disguises or British soliders suffering from stress-related Alopecia—the stakes change. George and Colm must determine whether they can deal with each other as individual people, rather than seeing each other as “enemies,” tokens of the larger conflict. Unfortunately, the film has already cast George and Colm as Protestant and Catholic tokens respectively, so that any decision to heal the friendship automatically expands to “national” proportions.
I won’t give away the ending, but I do think it’s worth noting that despite its obvious oversimplification of the political issues, An Everlasting Piece subverts some of the very formulas it uses, much as it does with the opening landscape shots. While generally, it is a buddy film, it doesn’t subscribe to the hypermasculine, often violent and misogynistic themes of which that genre often seems to be a proponent. Instead of, say, ass-kicking, gun-toting crime fighters or criminals, the film offers relatively passive hairdressers, one of whom fancies himself a poet. Instead of relentlessly reaffirming the virility of its male characters, it highlights, in overt ways, their anxiety about their masculinity. Soldiers, farmers, factory workers—all seemingly rough and rugged men at first sight—are shown to be insecure and vain, worried about aging and looks. And even if you don’t see as feminized, in the sense that they appear vain and superficial, the film makes a point of showing that most of the men who purchase the toupees do so, by their own admission, to appeal to the women in their lives. If that’s the case, then men are unwitting victims of women’s superficiality, merely trying to reestablish their guy desirability.
The film also tries to undermine some typical components of films about Ireland, but with less success than it does with the buddy motif. Yes, it casts away that preconceived notion of Ireland as that aesthetically appealing beachscape, but only to replace it with equally stereotypical images of Ireland as plagued by war and fanatical, with checkpoints and soldiers and barbed wire and bombed out buildings. Politically motivated murals show up everywhere in the film, dwarfing characters as they walk past so they seem insignificant compared to the “Troubles.” Levinson presents these visual manifestations of and responses to the strife more as a matter of fact than anything else. Colm and George pass through British checkpoints with little alarm; soldiers hold mirrors under cars to check for bombs and people are nervous, but the practice isn’t foreign to them. And though the film tries to represent each political side similarly—sympathetic but also buffoons—the equilibrium is hard to maintain once it moves beyond broad characterizations and into actual discourse. When Colm, George, and Bronagh go to meet with the Alopecia-stricken British soldiers, Bronagh explains that these young men, mostly on the bomb squad, are losing their hair in huge clumps from the stress. “Why isn’t our hair falling out then?” Colm asks. Bronagh’s reply is simple, but infinitely more powerful and telling than an onslaught of war-torn visuals: “I guess we’re used to it.”