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King of the Travellers is a contemporary drama grounded in the traditions of the Irish traveller community and driven by emotive Shakespearean themes of love, betrayal, friendship and revenge. The story follows John Paul Moorehouse on his destructive quest to uncover the truth about the killer of his father twelve years ago. John Paul's desire for revenge is swayed as he falls for Winnie Power, the daughter of the man he suspects killed his father. John Paul must now battle between his consuming passion for justice versus his desire to be with the woman he now loves. Written by
'Travellers" are a culturally distinct, nomadic peoples, who camp along the fringes of urban Irish (and to a lesser extent English and American) society. Recent genetic research tells us that the split between Travellers (or Pavees)and the "settled" folk of Éire began a millennium ago. Clanish and self-isolated, they are "among the most discriminated- against ethnic groups in Ireland".
"King of the Travellers" begins brilliantly with a lead-in of old black and white documentary footage of humble Traveller families, spliced with some great rough Irish céilí music and documentary-style footage of the film's cast in character. This sets the tone for a movie that, although it's fiction, realistically sums up the hard life of a people trying to hang on to its cultural heritage in the face of the growing hegemonies of modern Ireland. Conflicts within families and between families, between cliques and clans, between neighbors and officialdom highlight both the earthy bent of, and the ever-increasing restrictions on, the Traveller life style.
Writer-director Mark O'Connor toys with Shakespearean themes as well; and somewhat unevenly. It's hard sometimes to guess his intentions, to know for certain what kind of movie we're watching. We get hints of Hamlet, and Romeo and Juliet and Midsummer's Night Dream, along with quotes and references to other films too; "The Godfather" has been mentioned by critics, and to my eye, there are certainly nods to Kusturica's "Time of the Gypsies." But the Irish landscape and its people and horses- and its music- are easily able to carry the aesthetic weight of the film. Many of the players are Travellers themselves and they perform admirably well: we seldom think of them as amateur actors but are able to accept them as authentic characters. It isn't hard to intuit the real cultural gap between them and the "settled" population, nor, at the same time, to see the common humanity both sides share.
Prejudice gets stirred up by transgression, real and perceived; it grows in a climate of ignorance and matures when greed and political necessity replace honest judgement; the examination of this process, as it buffets the innocent, constitutes the real theme of "King of the Travellers".
But besides leading us on a virtual tour of the realities of an embattled group of people, the director wants us to feel the gypsy pull of freedom; he would like us to sense the joyous possibility of an ethical reality outside the stricture of law. Maybe that's a prototypical kind of fantasy, but O'Connor, who doesn't romanticize his Travellers much, makes us wonder.
So what if this film is occasionally heavy handed? It presents an unfamiliar reality with good will and sympathy; and there are moments of real beauty in it. If you want my advice, don't suspend your disbelief- instead, simply accept that you're being told a story by an honest bard, a story well worth hearing.
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