Dancing at Lughnasa

             Playwright Brian Friel has been skittish about having his stage work
     adapted to films, allowing only
Philadelphia, Here I Come (1975) to be
     turned into a movie. His plays are really more mood pieces than dramas,
     yet each of them provides not only great roles for actors, but also a
     heartfelt and touching story. Ranked among his best is
Dancing at Lughnasa         
which premiered in Ireland at the Abbey Theatre in 1990 and went on to
      great success in London and then Broadway where it won the Tony Award
     as the season's Best Play. Drawing on memories of his maiden aunts, Friel
     concocted a plot centered on the five unmarried Mundy sisters living in the
     small town of Ballybeg in 1936. Very much a memory play in the tradition of
     Tennessee Williams'
The Glass Menagerie, Dancing at Lughnasa is framed
     by a middle-aged man looking back on one summer of his childhood, the
     last time his extended family was all under one roof. It is a poignant
     evocation of a lost time. Friel resisted all requests to adapt the play until
     producer Noel Pearson finally wore him down and he relented, turning over
     the responsibility to fellow playwright Frank McGuinness. The result is,
     quite frankly, a lovely chamber piece.

             There's a nearly unanimous complaint from actresses that decent
     roles, never mind good ones, are hard to find. Although she almost always
     manages to find them, Meryl Streep has been quite vocal on the subject.
     But it was her passion and her commitment to this project that helped
     to get it made. And not only does the script provide her with a strong role
     as the stern oldest sister Kate, a schoolteacher who has trouble indulging
     in fun, but it also gives four other actresses great parts. Director Pat
     O'Connor has beautifully cast the film: Kathy Burke (who just keeps
     getting better and better with every role) plays the irreverent Maggie,
     Brid Brennan reprises her Tony-winning role as Agnes, who makes extra
     money knitting gloves, Sophie Thompson is the sweet but "slow" Rose
     and the luminous Catherine McCormack is Christina, the youngest who
     happens to be the mother of an illegitimate child, Michael. (It is this
     boy whose memories frame the story). The lives of these women are
     anything but easy. There are chores to be done, money is tight and
     there are changes on the horizon. When the film opens, the sisters
     are awaiting the arrival of their brother Jack (Michael Gambon), a priest
     who has spent the last 15 years in a leper colony in Africa and who seemingly
     has had a breakdown of some sort. Shortly after his arrival, Michael's father
     Gerry (Rhys Ifans) shows up unexpectedly, causing consternation.

             The story unfolds in the details of the characters' lives. Trips to the
     village where gossip rules and everyone seems to know everyone's business,
     where the church is paramount, yet there remains a strain of the pagan.
     There's much talk of the summer harvest and the festival of Lugh, the
     god of light. As the women cope with their daily chores, with the unsettling
     presence of Father Jack, who may have come home to die, with Gerry's
     dreams of going off to fight in Spain with the International Brigade. The
     women have crises to cope with: Kate finds her livelihood as a
     schoolteacher threatened by the petty parish priest; Rose is
     experiencing the throes of first love; Agnes sees the need for her handiwork
     drying up as a knitting factory is being built; while Maggie wants to indulge
     in fun and Christina hopes to keep her son's father around. McGuinness
     has "opened up" the play (which on stage took place on one set) just
     enough with glimpses of the village and the surroundings and O'Connor
     has guided his cast with a sure hand. This is one of those films that
     you cannot really say what it's about except to say it's about life.

             The high point is a moment when all five sisters allow themselves
     to indulge in a dance as traditional Irish music is heard over the radio.
     While it does not have quite the same emotionally cathartic effect as
     it did on stage, it is symbolic of their triumphs over the hardships they
     face. For that brief moment, they are free. Naturally, what follows is only

             Pat O'Connor has only directed a handful of feature films, but nearly
     all have been blessed with scintillating performances, whether it was Helen
     Mirren and John Lynch in
Cal or Colin Firth, Kenneth Branagh and Natasha
     Richardson in
A Month in the Country or Minnie Driver in Circle of Friends.
     He also brings a wonderful eye to framing the story and his production
     team, from Kenneth MacMillan's painterly cinematography (capturing the
     wild beauty of Ireland) to Bill Whelan's appropriately understated score,
     ably abet him. The five actresses here, collectively and individually, are
     nothing short of perfect. Rhys Ifans bring the appropriate charm to his
     role, Darrell Johnson as Michael offers one of the most un-actorly child
     performances I've ever seen and Michael Gambon makes a strong
     impression as the slightly addled Father Jack. Maybe it's my own Celtic
     background but I couldn't help being won over by this gem of a film.
Dancing at Lughnasa is simply marvelous.

                                      Rating:        A -
© 2008 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.