Who can forget when Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman were the world’s It couple? And their smoldering chemistry? Who can forget 1992’s Far And Away, when they put on Irish brogues?
I saw Far And Away on VHS with my friend, Nikki in high school, and we kinda got into it. During the last ten minutes we were talking to the screen:
“Pick up the stick!”
“No, don’t look at each other. Put the stick in the ground. Come on, you can do it!”
Nikki’s miniature schnauzers, Madonna and Major eyed us uneasily before hiding under the coffee table, but we hardly noticed.
For those who may not remember the film, it starts out with Joseph Donnelly’s (Tom Cruise) father dying during a peasant revolt. Well, not exactly. He comes back long enough to tell Joseph he should go to America and work his own land. Then he dies.
If that isn’t bad enough, the landlord’s overseer, Stephen Chase (Thomas Gibson) shows up with his goons during Donnelly’s funeral and burns the Donnelly house down. Joseph vows revenge, so he heads off to the landlord’s mansion with a rusty rifle.
The landlord, Daniel Christie (Robert Prosky), is an amiable fellow who likes to get away from his fastidious wife, Nora (Barbara Babcock) whenever he can. He’s got nothing on his daughter, Shannon, who, more than anything, wants to be a modern woman. She prefers galloping through the countryside to sedately cantering and band music to classical. And she really doesn’t like Victorian collars.
Shannon and Joseph’s paths collide when Shannon finds Joseph hiding in the stable and puts a pitchfork in his leg. Joseph is a quick healer, though, and stumbles downstairs just in time to spit on Stephen, who’s in the drawing room with Nora and her friends.
Stephen challenges Joseph to engage in the old standby, pistols at dawn, but just in time Shannon thunders through with an alternate plan: She’s going to America, where they give land away for free in Oklahoma. Joseph almost turns her down, but then thinks better of it and hops up on the wagon. Shannon pays for his passage on the condition that he pretends to be her servant. And she milks it for all it’s worth.
While on board ship, Shannon meets Mr. McGuire (Barry McGuire), who she thinks is very helpful and congenial. Huh. Yeah. He’s so helpful and congenial that he steals the spoons Shannon was going to sell to buy Joseph’s and her way out to Oklahoma. And apparently McGuire had people waiting for him, because he’s shot as soon as he arrives in Boston.
Since they’re left with no money, Joseph and Shannon fall in with a guy named Kelly (Colm Meaney), who sets them up with jobs in a chicken processing plant, where they pluck and sterilize chickens for market. Kind fellow that he is, Kelly gets them a room in a brothel. As in, one room. Kelly’s ignorance can be partially forgiven, though, because Joseph told him Shannon is his sister.
Joseph isn’t satisfied with the pitiful wages he gets, so he takes up boxing. Actually, it’s more like bare knuckle fighting. He’s so successful at it that he has a shelf lined with new hats and money in his pocket. It rankles Shannon, who gets on Joseph’s case because that money could be used to go to Oklahoma. There’s now an unspoken romantic tension between the two of them, and they peek at each other through the fabric of a folding screen while changing. It’s so obvious that no one believes they’re brother and sister.
Meanwhile, back in Ireland, a few of Christie’s disgruntled tenants burn down the Christie mansion, so Daniel and Nora decide to follow Shannon to America with the snarly Stephen in tow. They have no idea what they’ve let themselves in for. They also have no idea how to do laundry on a washboard.
When Joseph loses a big-stakes fight, he and Shannon are tossed out on the street, where they wander aimlessly through the snow. However, they’re not completely down or out, because everything leads up to the big land rush in Oklahoma, where alliances will be made and lost. Joseph and Stephen just might have a score to settle, too.
Far And Away is a crowded affair. A lot happens. If my plot summary seems comedic, that’s because it sort of is. While the movie doesn’t take itself seriously in the slightest, it’s not played as a comedy, either. Put it this way: It’s impossible to be completely serious when one scene features Shannon sneaking a peek at Joseph’s man parts while he’s passed out on a guest bed. I don’t know how Tom Cruise played that scene so straight, seeing as his dignity was solely preserved by a strategically-placed mixing bowl.
Cruise and Kidman were, and still are, masters of the piercing gaze, and when they’re together onscreen it’s a double-shot of kinetic energy. They seem to be biding their time until they can reduce the space between them. It’s both a strength and a weakness. When two actors project that kind of crackling tension, it’s not much surprise where their characters will end up, even if it is fun watching them get there.
The film doesn’t color outside the lines as far as plot goes, though. Granted, there are only so many plots in the world, especially romantic ones, but the trick is to keep a story from feeling like a retread. Joseph and Shannon start their relationship at each other’s throats? And Joseph takes up boxing? Okeydokey. Wonder what’s going to happen next. And way to cater to all the Irish stereotypes, folks.
When it comes to the period in which the film takes place, Ron Howard and co-writer Bob Dolman really did their homework, and this is where the film is strongest. They don’t glamourize anything about the Victorian period. The costumes and the look of the sets are absolutely correct, whether we’re looking at the Christie sitting room or Shannon and Joseph’s room at the brothel. The dirty, scummy water in the brothel bathtub is on point. So are the cramped conditions on trains and in the sweatshop. Their only misstep is that Shannon’s hair is too short to handle the elaborate hairstyles of the period, and she leaves her hair down at night. That’s OK, though, because she’s Nicole Kidman, and that means wearing her hair in all its tousled early-90s glory.
Naturally, the Oklahoma land rush, which took place on September 16. 1893, is dead-on accurate. Shannon and Joseph’s event was one in a series of land rushes, and this one happened near the Kansas-Oklahoma border.
The thing with Ron Howard is that he seems to do better with stories that take place within more contained environments. Apollo 13, Parenthood, and Arrested Development were all relatively contained. When it comes to epics, though, things seem to get lost. It felt like Howard was trying to be John Ford or Michael Curtiz, but that type of filmmaking wants a bit more energy. It’s messy. And it has to be earned. And it’s not for everyone, which is fine. Ron Howard is more of a George Cukor type, that’s all.
Overall, I enjoyed revisiting Far and Away. I wasn’t yelling at the screen this time, but it was still fun. My son loved it because it’s a good, fast story, plus scrappy Tom Cruise is never dull. It makes me wonder if age affects appreciation level. That and he doesn’t know Cruise and Kidman’s sordid later history. I won’t enlighten him because I’m over it. We all are. It’s better to just leave it on the shelf and enjoy the sparkiness that was Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise onscreen.
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