Director Dan Ireland co-founded the Seattle International Film Festival, so it was especially fitting that his latest effort, Passionada, was last year's closing night presentation. A big-hearted love story set in the Portuguese fishing community of New Bedford, Massachusetts, it begins with a procession along the waterfront to honor the fishermen who were killed in a storm seven years earlier. A beautiful woman casts a wreath into the water and pledges her undying love to her dead husband: She's Celia, the film's central character, played with equal measures of strength and vulnerability by the intoxicating Sofia Milos.
A widow who refuses to re-open her heart, Celia makes a living singing passionate Portuguese ballads in a local restaurant. She shares a house with her mother-in-law, the stern and overprotective Angelica (Lupe Ontiveros), and her teenage daughter Vicki (the fetching Emmy Rossum), who is as pretty as her mother but far more reckless with her emotions. Into their lives comes Beck (Jason Isaacs), a charming British gambler who helps Vicki win a few hands of blackjack at a local casino, then falls for Celia when he sees her perform. Celia doesn't want anything to do with Beck, while Vicki tries to convince him to teach her how to count cards. At first, he doesn't know they're related, but when he finds out he reluctantly agrees to give Vicki gambling lessons in exchange for her help romancing her mother.
The script (by brothers Jim and Stephen Jermanok) has an old-fashioned, sentimental arc, and Ireland handles it with skill and a lush visual sensibility. But it's the performers who make the movie's heart beat: Milos and Rossum have the same dark curly hair and big, vulnerable eyes, and their mother-daughter chemistry is flawless. For his part, Isaacs exudes a roguish charisma that makes his attraction to both women inevitable. The interaction of these three talented actors is a treat to watch, and helps make Passionada almost irresistible.