Aidan Quinn, 51, has been returning to Ireland all his life. Although he was born and raised in Chicago, the handsome Irish American actor with the steely blue eyes actually spent a good portion of his early life in Dublin and in Birr, Co. Offaly, located in the heart of the Irish midlands.
Quinn was raised by his devoutly Catholic Irish parents, and in many ways it was a classic Irish American upbringing. His father was a professor of literature and his mother was a typical Irish homemaker (and a fellow bookworm, too).
So Quinn’s intimate experience of Irish life and American life has helped him create remarkably insightful portraits of both Irish and Irish American men in films like "Michael Collins", "Songs for a Raggy Boy" and his recent star turn in playwright Conor McPherson’s "The Eclipse".
But in "A Shine of Rainbows" Quinn tackles an entirely new kind of character -- Alec, the stoic and very recognizable Irish Da.
"A Shine of Rainbows" begins when a young orphan named Tomas is adopted by Marie O’Donnell (Connie Nielsen), a local woman who lives with her quiet spoken husband (Quinn) on the remote Corrie Island, located just off the coast of Donegal.
But Tomas is a distinctly sensitive boy, and his timidity is an instant problem for his would-be father, who sees only what he considers weakness where he had hoped to see strength.
The truth is that the emotional issues that young Tomas faces aren’t all that uncommon -- having had no male role models, he’s become shy and insecure around men. And as an orphan, he’s had to deal with some rejection and uncertainty in his past, and there’s a fair bit of bubbling resentment to contend with too.
Quinn’s character senses all this conflict in the boy but seems unable to tackle it head on himself. This is Corrie island in the 1950s after all, not a psychiatrist’s office in Manhattan, so the reception is inevitably going to be a bit rougher around the edges.
To make things even worse, and to add to the already simmering tensions, Tomas’ relationship with Marie instantly blossoms as her curmudgeonly husband makes things difficult by refusing to sign the adoption papers, because he’s disappointed with the boy’s unconventional nature.
The thing that makes "A Shine of Rainbows" unusual is that it doesn’t shy away from the heartache that comes from family conflicts of this type.
Director Vic Sarin, originally from India, has an immigrant’s understanding of the tensions and opportunities that exist when you arrive in a new home, and he expertly guides his cast through a drama that cannot fail to move you.
For Nielsen, who previously starred with Quinn in the death row drama Convicted, it was the quality of the script and the opportunity to work with Quinn again that encouraged her to participate. Even if it meant filming in a location that was about as remote as any she has ever visited.
“It was a small and very intimate crew in Donegal and we had a five week stretch of sunshine. The locals couldn’t remember a time when that had happened before,” Nielsen told the press.
“We also brought a whole new economy to Inishowen (the most northerly peninsula in Ireland) and we were such a multicultural crew. So for me the experience of making the film was as enjoyable as the work itself.”
Nielsen plays an Irish woman who has been trying for years to have her own child. She’s full of love for everyone she meets, and so when she chooses to adopt the most miserable child on the planet, you can easily believe she’s up to the challenge.
“My character teaches this shy, stuttering child to trust love and to trust life. That, just even talking about it, makes we tear up already,” Nielsen says.
“By the time I got to page 30 of the script I was calling my agent and saying I’ll do it, I don’t care how it ends! My reaction to the piece was that strong.”
Bonding with Tomas on remote Corrie Island, Maire shares the joys of her home and introduces him to its whimsical local folklore, including the secret of the seals, and she teaches him that everything you need is inside of you, if you really look.
It’s a lesson that’s initially lost on Maire’s stern husband, who disapproves of everything about Tomas and makes no secret of the fact. He refuses to hide his disappointment that Tomas isn’t the kind of boy he was hoping for, and his reluctance to get to know him makes Tomas unsure of whether he really belongs.
“Aidan’s character is not at all in touch with his own feelings,” says Nielsen. “He’s all man and he can’t cope with a challenge to his view of the world. This child makes him uneasy. When his wife brings this kid into the house he finds it very hard to accept him.”
For Nielsen, part of the joy of the experience was the location in which the film was shot.
“I love the Irish and I loved sounding like one too. I threw myself into that accent with complete abandon,” she says.
“My family couldn’t wait until I wrapped the movie because they had to listen to it for months. But it was a very lovely example of cultures getting together to make this film.”
For the most part "A Shine of Rainbows" progresses at a slow and thoughtful pace, like the life on the island itself. And director Sarin fills the islander’s days with the kind of period detail that makes the film much more than a typical Irish yarn. There’s an art house feel to the whole enterprise that makes it much more than the saccharine fest you might anticipate.
“It’s a great story and something my kids would love,” Quinn told the press. “It was an opportunity to work with Connie again and also a opportunity to work in Ireland again.
“I’ve been really lucky; a good batting average is that you like one out of every three films you like. I like every Irish film I’ve made to date, and I’m delighted to be able to say that. For it all to come together like this makes me feel very blessed.”
The opportunity to work in a Donegal dialect was tempting too. Quinn spent days knocking around the Inishowen Peninsula and saying “No bother!” in a flawless northern accent.
“It’s been terrific working up here and I think that more films and filmmakers should. The scenery and the people are just knockout. It’s been a dream for all of us,” he says.
First and foremost "A Shine of Rainbows" is a story about the transformational power of love, which is a lesson that’s worth learning and relearning at any age. It’s also about finding love and acceptance, and realizing that the power to change resides inside of us as well as outside.
"A Shine of Rainbows" will be released on DVD in July.
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