|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.