starring Jonathan Pryce, Ian Bannen, Griff Rhys Jones, Geraldine James
screenplay by Maureen Tilyou, based on the book The Testimony of Taliesin Jones by Rhidian Brook
directed by Martin Duffy
"Excessive sorrow gains nothing,
Nor will doubting God's miracles.
Although I am small, I am skilful"
--6th century, Taliesin
by Walter Chaw Chief Bard of Britain and a Celtic shaman, the historical Taliesin lived in Wales in the sixth century, his poems the direct precursor to the Arthur legend as well as his own as a druidic shape-shifter and spiritual healer. (He's thought to be the inspiration for the Merlin character.) Rhidian Brook's well-regarded children's tome The Testimony of Taliesin Jones concerns a quiet child who, stricken by the divorce of his parents, turns to faith-healing to deal with the arbitrary turmoil of his life. With its heart so clearly in the right place, it's hard to come down too hard on Martin Duffy's same-named cinematic adaptation of Brook's text, but the film is so intent on capturing the spiritual aspects of its title character and its namesake that it gives short shrift to the tragedy of its familial disintegration, discarding subtlety, too, in its proselytizing wake.
The sensitive and bookish young Taliesin (John Paul Macleod) engages in flights of fancy fuelled first by an atlas and later by an illustrated Bible. Living with his father (Jonathan Pryce) and older brother (Matthew Rhys), Taliesin takes piano lessons from Billy (Ian Bannen), who happens to moonlight as a faith healer. When he observes and participates in one of Billy's healing sessions, Taliesin attaches himself to questions of faith with the fervour of a young man in need of distraction--especially after a mysterious wart affliction is prayed away.
The film is most effective in the interactions between young Macleod, the always-good Pryce, and the late, great Bannen. In his first major film, Macleod has had the fortune to be placed opposite two of the best character actors in the movies, and his evolution under their tutelage is easy to mark. The film is weakest during attempts at magic realism (in a pair of clumsily handled CGI fantasy sequences), and it relies too heavily on a voice-over that is awkwardly scripted, atonal, and insultingly transparent. The Testimony of Taliesin Jones, because of that tediously earnest over-simplicity, is probably best suited for younger audiences: it's just too worried about nurturing its strident message to appeal to an audience that is unreceptive to this particular pulpit or desirous of a message.
With its trio of very fine performances and lovely photography of the Welsh countryside, The Testimony of Taliesin Jones will doubtless find a limited but ferocious following. While it's interesting to see a movie courageous enough to be open about its spirituality, it falls far short of films like The Apostle, manufacturing too many scenarios in which the hero might have an opportunity to triumphantly sermonize, and too few that allow us to wonder for ourselves if things will turn out fine. Originally published: February 1, 2002.