A fable about faith, “Taliesin Jones” is so sweet that you might find yourself feeling the effects of a sugar high after watching it. The picture is certainly warm-hearted and well-intentioned, and it features some able actors in nice performances. But its eagerness to be uplifting is ultimately more calculated than inspiring, and its message is more than a little muddled both by a refusal to embrace established religion as unambiguously as the narrative would appear to demand, and by an effort to water down the specifics of belief to the most token of gestures.
The title figure is a young Welsh boy (John-Paul Macleod) whose mother (Geraldine James) has abandoned his farmer father (Jonathan Pryce) for the artistic (and romantic) allurements of town life. His father and older brother’s (Matthew Rhys) bitterness at the breakup of the family, and Taliesin’s own longing for the restoration of their earlier happiness, eventually lead the boy to seek alternate fulfillment in the teaching of his piano teacher Billy Evans (Ian Bannen), an kindly, elderly eccentric who promises to instruct him in the ways of healing by the laying on of hands as well as music. Taliesin soon grows devoted to the practice (especially after his warts seem miraculously to disappear after Billy’s intervention), even choosing to attend church–something no one else in his family or neighborhood appears to do–but when he tries to witness to his faith in school, by forming a club devoted to faith-healing, he falls afoul of the authorities, particularly his learned, open-minded principal (Griff Rhys Jones). Under such pressure, and after the death of someone close challenges his belief, can he remain committed to it?
On one level, the plot of “Taliesin Jones” is clearly an allegory with psychological underpinnings. The boy’s embrace of physical healing is obviously a kind of transference of his yearning to end the emotional breach in his family. At the same time, however, it’s presented as a religious phenomenon–a commitment to faith. As if this confusion in Maureen Tilyou’s script weren’t problematic enough, there’s also uncertainty about the object of Taliesin’s faith. Despite the boy’s occasional references to God and his (distinctly unsatisfying) attempts to connect with organized religion, ultimately the film seems to suggest that it doesn’t much matter what one believes in–simply that one believe in something (anything?) in an amorphous, good-willed fashion. This is, to put it mildly, a rather simplistic and even unedifying message, one that’s perhaps appropriate for the sort of highly secularized society depicted in the film (and probably characteristic of the larger western world, too), but that also seems mushy and indistinct.
Despite the muddiness of meaning, however, “Taliesin Jones” does boast effective turns all around. Macleod makes a likable protagonist, and Pryce and the late Bannen bring sturdy professionalism to their roles. Jones is especially effective as the boy’s quietly authoritative and intelligent teacher. On the other hand, Rhys and James can’t quite get a handle on characters whose motives and intentions are opaque. And while director Martin Duffy stages things with a minimum of fuss, his use of fantasy sequences in a couple of instances comes across as affected, and the whimsy is sometimes awfully heavy-handed.
There’s a generalized warmth in “Taliesin Jones” which some viewers might find quite appealing. (After all, last year’s “Chocolat” was intellectually a mess, but many audiences embraced it.) It might be described as a fuzzier, less gritty and religiously-shaded variant of the kind of story told in “Billy Elliot.” But in truth, it’s not in the same class. The real miracle hear is that so modest a picture is receiving a full big-screen release rather than immediately taking up residence on cable or the Hallmark channel. For that, at least, Impact Entertainment is to be lauded–even if the film isn’t entirely worthy of the effort.