A SWEET-NATURED rites of passage movie, Circle of Friends was adapted from Irish author Maeve Binchy's bestselling novel.
Like its oversized heroine Benny (Minnie Driver), the film can be cumbersome - especially when trying to cross over from small-town Ireland to big American box office. But its good humour wins through in the end, thanks to the deft direction of Pat O'Connor (Cal) and a succinct screenplay by Andrew Davies.
Circle of Friends is set in 1957, and runs through some very familiar scenarios: an ugly duckling who wins the heart of a rugby-playing hunk; two small-town girls who leave their families for the bright lights - only to find betrayal from their new best friend. Moral? Never trust a city girl, all men are rats, there's no place like home.
Driver scorches the screen as Benny, a big bulky girl with a heart of gold. Pressurised by her family to enter a convenient marriage with oily shop assistant Sean (Alan Cumming), only-child Benny leaves her dull hometown of Knockglen with Eve (Geraldine O'Rawe) for college in Dublin. There they meet up with beautiful social climber Nan (Saffron Burrows), who introduces Benny to the hunky Jack Foley (Chris O'Donnell).
To her amazement, ungainly Benny attracts the attentions of Jack, while Nan pursues the older, richer Simon (Colin Firth) and Eve strikes up a relationship with Aidan (Aidan Gillen). But it's 1950s Ireland - with all the attendant morality of Vatican City.
Should the girls abandon their honour in pursuit of passion? Or will Satan strike them down? The ugly question of sex provides the grounds for Circle of Friends' ultimate denouement.
Circle of Friends, Majestic/Golden Gateway cinemas