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Young Cassidy

Posted on the 21 August 2017 by Christopher Saunders

Young Cassidy

"All the world's a stage, but some of us are desperately under-rehearsed."

John Ford admired radical Irish playwright Sean O'Casey, even directing a fatally compromised adaptation of The Plough and the Stars (1936). Thus Young Cassidy (1965) would seem an appropriate capper to his career...except Ford fell ill early in production, turnings it over to Jack Cardiff. The result's intermittently interesting, more engaging in its pageantry and character interactions than its superficial evocation of Revolutionary Ireland.
In 1910s Dublin, laborer John Cassidy/Sean O'Casey (Rod Taylor) becomes involved in Irish nationalism. His writing skills grab the attention both of rebel leaders and British authorities, though he balks at supporting the Easter Rising of 1916. Afterwards, O'Casey's literary career explodes through the patronage of W.B. Yeats (Michael Redgrave), who agrees to produce his controversial play The Plough and the Stars. He also juggles multiple relationships, notably with librarian Nora (Maggie Smith) and proletarian mother Ella (Sian Phillips).
Given the changing directors, it's a surprise that Young Cassidy gels without complication. Aside from some blarney of The Quiet Man variety early on (bar fights and coarse humor) there's little to mark Ford's involvement. Indeed, Cassidy could have used more blarney; Cardiff's mostly-British cast only intermittently convince as Irishmen, even if they're compelling enough characters. Occasional brogues and Irish bit players color a straightforward costume drama, beautifully shot by Edward Scaife, a few flashy riots and barricade battles, but not especially Irish.
Straightforward also in compromising its politics. The real O'Casey was a committed socialist, butting heads with the nationalist, Catholic chauvinism of many Irishmen. Hence the backlash against Plough and other works, which suggest pride in a flag means nothing unless the workers' lot improves. Film O'Casey mostly quarrels with the Brotherhood over tactics, watching the Easter Rising collapse with tears in his eyes but mocking their pretensions at gentlemanly warfare. It's unlikely that a mainstream, Anglo-American movie from 1965 would embrace socialism, but it makes the choice of subject even more curious.
Since Young Cassidy can't convey its subject's complexities, Cardiff and writer John Whiting code them in "safer" terms. O'Casey's background and self-education earn him widespread; he becomes an Angry Young Man whose brilliance and appetites outpace more respectable peers. He rages at well-heeled liberals who pan his plays, but finds the working classes upset over his coarse language. Nor does he find much solace in romance, unable to commit to Nora who admits she can't understand him, nor the alternative women on offer. He comes to embody frustrated passion, articulate but unheard, brilliant but under-appreciated, encouraged only by Yeats' appeals to truth.
Rod Taylor is perfectly cast, giving a turn full of swagger, violence and lusty brilliance. Meek Maggie Smith and sultry Julie Christie (the year of her star turns in Darling and Doctor Zhivago) provide contrasting romantic interests, though Sian Phillips is more grounded as a tough Irish tenant who briefly captures O'Casey's attentions. Michael Redgrave receives a showy cameo, with Edith Evans much better as O'Casey's wealthy benefactor.
Young Cassidy has its merits in handsome photography, respectable staging and a top-flight cast. Unfortunately, it evinces only a limited grasp on its subject: O'Casey as raging romantic rather than radical rebel, Ireland as a picturesque backwater inhabited by Brits and Aussies. Given its origins as a great director's last, deeply personal masterwork it nonetheless disappoints.

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