A mixed bag of warrior myths, ’70s Americana and a rootsy “Romeo and Juliet,” “King of the Travellers” marks a confident turn by writer-helmer Mark O’Connor. This gypsy picaresque is set in the nomadic, tradition-bound culture referenced by the title, providing a natural milieu for the kind of honor-and-revenge story O’Connor wants to tell. In a bid for authenticity, the cast includes many real Travellers, and might have been better served by more real actors. But the narrative is tried and true, and the novelty of the setting will aid the film’s theatrical chances.
John Paul Moorhouse (John Connors, an actual Traveller) was a little boy when he saw his father gunned down, and has grown up the heir-apparent to a community led by his uncle Francis (Michael Collins). While Francis tries to keep the peace with the more belligerent Powers family, he’s thwarted by John Paul, who agrees to an arranged bar-knuckle bout with one of the Powers clan, and by John Paul’s brother Mickey (Peter Coonan), a wild-eyed combination of Sonny Corleone and Tom Hagen (he was adopted by John Paul’s father).
All this fuels the suspicion that O’Connor is out to remake the great American films of the ’70s. His debut, “Between the Canals,” was also a “Mean Streets” homage; his current low-budget shocker, “Stalker,” is based on an unmistakable “Taxi Driver” template; and “King of the Travellers” is a Gaelic “Godfather,” with John Paul as Michael Corleone. Not that Francis Ford Coppola is O’Connor’s only muse; a scene in which John Paul berates Francis for having derailed his boxing career virtually lifted from the immortal Brando-Steiger back-of-the-cab scene in “On the Waterfront.”
O’Connor is having fun with these references, and the new film benefits from having been inspired by movies with such substantial narratives, with a strong assist from Shakespeare. John Paul beats his opponent and is convinced that the rival clan was responsible for his father’s death. Inconveniently, he falls in love with the Powers tribe’s princess, Winnie (Carla McGlynn), while Mickey accepts a challenge to fight another Powers, and the bloodletting gets fully under way.
Despite some moments of awkward acting — some of the elder Traveller ladies might as well be reading off cue cards — there are also moments of genuinely engrossing action in the well-staged fight scenes. Connors and Coonan, in their very different ways, can both own the screen, and while the story doesn’t end anywhere particularly surprising, the film, with its clear delineation of good and evil, works well in traditional crowdpleaser terms.
Production values are good, John Reynold’s music being particularly affecting and apt.
This year, director Mark O’Connor donned the mantle of enfant terrible of the Irish film industry by having his lead actor John Connors read a manifesto before a screening to declare the arrival of an Irish New Wave. This new wave, O’Connor believes, is led by writer-directors engaged in personal, emotionally direct filmmaking. The call to arms pleased some and irked others as it took a jab at “conventional Irish Film.”
O’Connor had an unprecedented two films at the Fleadh. King of the Travellers is a story about John Paul Moorehouse, a Traveller (or Irish Gypsy), who is on a mission to find out who killed his father. The film borrows from Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, and Raging Bull, and what it lacks in finesse (and it does in spades) it makes up for in charm. O’Connor has a distinctive voice and a knack for finding new talent and eliciting a good performance. He cast real Travellers in many parts and worked with nonprofessional actors, giving his film authenticity. The opening, in which two Travellers race pony and traps on a suburban road, is as gripping as any Hollywood action movie, while accurately capturing a pastime still popular within the Traveller community today. O’Connor’s aim is to make a good old-fashioned film rather than make art—his storytelling has a fearlessness that is very refreshing. While shooting the €1 million King of the Travellers, O’Connor etched out the no-budget feature, Stalker, with the same cast and crew.