Director Ron Howard’s unabashedly cornball late-nine-teenth-century romance has looks going for it. And not just the star shine of Tom Cruise as Irish tenant farmer Joseph Donelly and Nicole Kidman as Shannon Christie, the feisty daughter of the landlord who’s brought Donelly’s family to ruin. Working with a jumbo-screen camera process not used since the glory days of David Lean’s Ryan’s Daughter, cinematographer Mikael Salomon achieves visual wonders, as the film follows its lovers from the coastline of Ireland to the teeming slums of Boston and the 1893 Oklahoma land rush, which rousingly closes the show.
It’s the sluggish, old-hat script, by Bob Dolman — who wrote the weak-kneed Willow — that makes you feel the weight of the film’s two hours and twenty minutes. No help either is Howard’s refusal to let the growing relationship between Joseph and Shannon achieve any sexual heat. Aside from a few chaste kisses, Cruise (who sports an Irish brogue) and his real-life Aussie missus spend most of their time sparring. Joseph is forever racing to keep up with this patrician goddess. Leaving Ireland for Boston, they economize by posing as brother and sister so that they can share a room in a brothel.
Though a hooker remarks that there’s “gunpowder” in the frustrated Joseph, it doesn’t go off in this picture, except in the boxing scenes. Joseph takes on all comers in bare-fisted barroom fights to earn the money to get to Oklahoma and claim free land. Shannon wants land too; she thinks America will deliver the independence she couldn’t find at home in the shadow of an overprotective father (Robert Prosky) and suitor (Thomas Gibson). “You’re a corker, Shannon,” says Joseph in rapt admiration. “What a corker you are.” The delicate sweetness of that moment, magnetically played by Cruise and Kidman, represents the movie at in best.
Too often, though, Howard lays on the picturesque poverty and “this land is mine by destiny” rhetoric with the thundering bombast of John Williams’s score. But even at its hokiest, Far and Away is never less than heartfelt. There of Howard’s Irish ancestors took part in the Oldaboma land race. In a summer of impersonal product, this at least is a movie with dreams of more than box office.