Far and Away fades in with a slow fly-over shot of a crashing Atlantic Ocean on a partly sunny day, off the coast of what could not be mistaken for anywhere but Ireland. The wide-angled overhead continues, and the film title emerges as the camera lifts up and over the craggy cliffs and shoreline of rural Ireland; our sense of place reinforced by a backing of cheery Celtic flute music.
The opening credits continue to roll as the camera glides over a lush green, hilly landscape, accented by late afternoon silhouettes of the partial cloud cover, and perhaps best described by Carolyn James in her review as “picturesque in the manner of an Irish Spring soap commercial”. Gradually, what we assume to be a late 19th century Irish village comes into view, characterized by a handful of rudimentary stone buildings, narrow carriage roads, and stone walls. The camera view switches to brief shot of the street level in the village, the music replaced by the bustle of the everyday activities of the townspeople, before taking us into the local pub. It should be noted here that from street level, this village does not much resemble the romantic vision of the same village provided by the aerial shot. Even in such a short shot, the village appears more urban than it probably should, and if not for the natural light, would not differ greatly from the scenes of urban Boston later in the film.
It is in the pub that we first meet Joseph’s father (Joe) and a friend (McGuire) who appear to be perpetuating stereotypes by sharing a drink (or two) in the middle of the day and singing a favourite drinking refrain before being summoned to the street by a local to protest the arrival of a rent collecting protestant landlord. The camera scrambles to follow the protest out into the street as the villagers yell and throw debris at the landlord’s carriage and horses. Here the early comedic groundwork of the film is set as the scene essentially stops to allow Joe to blurt out a semi-drunken slurred barb toward the landlord, to which McGuire responds with a coy smile and a sarcastic “You told him” type response. The protest resumes (or, at least the film refocuses on the protest), and in the chaos of the landlord trying to escape the villagers, his horses and/or carriage knock over some sort of infrastructure (it is quite unclear what actually happens here) which falls on, and injuries Joe gravely.
The scene ends with Joe asking his drinking mate to take him to his sons, which segues seamlessly into introducing us to Joseph (Tom Cruise). The camera returns to the coastline with a wide angled aerial shot of the picturesque Irish landscape, and more specifically, the Donnelly family farm allotment which is where we find a clumsy Joseph wrestling humorously (and unsuccessfully) with a donkey try to work the family land. The airy Celtic music returns here with wide angled shots of the farm, and the surrounding landscape, the characters unaware of what has happened in town.
Lurking behind a freestanding stone wall, Joseph’s brothers drink and laugh as they watch Joseph lose the battle with the donkey, and mock him for even attempting to make a living on land that is not his own. Joseph responds by giving us a glimpse into his dreams of bigger and (arguably) better things in stating “my ambition is grander than yours”, building the groundwork for much of the films’ premise (Joseph’s desire to be a man of his own land).
Further perpetuating the merry Irish stereotype, and illustrating the fragility of Joseph’s ego, the half-drunken brothers goad Joseph into a fight. The challenge is quickly accepted by the previously clumsy Joseph, providing the viewer with a preview of the boxing skill that he relies upon for his livelihood later in the film. Throughout the brief fight, the camera switches back and forth between the wide angle landscape shot, to close ups of the combatants, all the while backed with a jolly Celtic tune, perhaps representing the playfulness between brothers, (and thus downplaying the seriousness of bare-knuckle fighting) or to contrast with the bad news to come.
It is interesting to note here that the Donnelly farm sits on a fairly significant slope (my best guess is probably between 15-25%, making for difficult farming to be sure) and is photographed almost exclusively from an upslope location. This is most likely to best include the gorgeous green landscape along with the cliffs and glimpses of ocean in the wide angled shots.
The mood changes abruptly (through music and even the sun seems to duck behind a cloud) as Joseph and his brothers notice McGuire calling to them from up the road as he approaches with their father on a wagon. As the camera focuses on McGuire approaching the farm from the road above, it is one of few shots in the sequence which show how truly rugged (yet still beautiful) the landscape is. Joseph sprints past his brothers to his father’s side, and quickly helps McGuire wheel Joe into the farmhouse. The scene ends with the feeling that Joe may not make it and that not only is the younger Joseph more ambitious, a better worker and fighter than his brothers, but that he values his family and their livelihood more than his (seemingly) lazy, drunk brothers, a feeling confirmed in the proceeding scene inside the farmhouse.
Apart from several flaws in the film, Howard’s representation of the rural Irish landscape, however brief, is aesthetically quite wonderful. In fact, through these opening scenes, the landscape seems to become a character in itself, and often overwhelms the characters as the viewer is more intent on absorbing the photography than studying Joseph et al. I believe this was also a common criticism with David Lean’s Ryan’s Daughter, which in all likelihood, served as something of an inspiration for Howard when planning these big, bold, wide angled shots (not to mention that both were filmed in 70mm). Lean’s film however, is considerably darker and thus his interpretation of the landscape, though sharing some of the same camera angles as Howard, is indicative of this (for example, Lean’s film quite accurately shows the temperamental Irish climate).
It could be argued that Far and Away fits a film genre similar to John Ford’s The Quiet Man, in terms of being a romance, with comedic twists. Ford certainly romanticizes in his treatment of the brilliant, emerald green Irish landscape; so much so that you almost expect to see wee leprechauns bounce across certain shots. Howard too creates a romantic green Irish landscape, which is perhaps intentional given the general lighthearted nature of the film, and a function of the limited number of scenes actually taking place in Ireland. I however, see Howard’s representation of rural Ireland as something of a intermediate between Lean and Ford’s interpretations, obviously developed for his own purposes, but borrowing from precedent before him.