Category: Archive

Reel life for Friel’s ‘Lughnasa’

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Michael Gray

Pat O’Connor’s new film, "Dancing at Lughnasa," unfurls Brian Friel’s taut drama of the same name, transporting it from the confines of the Broadway stage to the broader frame of Donegal’s barren mountains — the setting for so many of the playwright’s works. Adapted by Frank McGuinness from Friel’s original play, the film features a strong cast led by Meryl Streep, Michael Gambon, Bríd Brennan and Catherine McCormack, playing sibling members of the Mundy family.

The Mundy sisters live a life of frugal spinsterhood in an isolated cottage near the village of Ballybeg. All five subsist in a state of genteel poverty, surviving on the income of the eldest sister Kate (Streep), an imperious schoolteacher, and on what little produce can be coaxed from the rocky soil of their small holding. In the evenings they try to make a little extra money by knitting gloves to sell in a nearby town. They are proud people, accorded additional respect in their devout Catholic community by the fact that they have a brother who is a priest in Africa.

Though none of them are married, and most of them have given up hope of ever doing so, their household is not childless. The light of their lives is the 8-year-old boy Michael, son of youngest sister, Christina, from a relationship she had with a charming Welshman, a romantic drifter with a motorcycle. He still loves her, and visits periodically to leave the seat up in their lives, but won’t marry her and settle down. The sisters’ tale is told through Michael’s eyes, reflecting as an adult on that summer in 1936 when the grim continuity of their lives was changed forever.

The film opens with the arrival of the spinsters’ brother, Jack, played by Gambon, back from Africa after many years in the missions. The five sisters are proud that Father Jack has devoted his life to converting the people of Africa to Christianity, supported by the pennies they scrimped from what little extra money they had. But it soon turns out that Jack’s African sojourn has been a bad investment for them. Though he has returned in body to his native soil, his spirit remains in Africa. Addled by palm wine and too many years in the tropical sun, Father Jack appears to have lost his mind, and has embraced the pagan culture of Africa to the extent that he has become an embarrassment to the Catholic church. He delights in the presence of the young Michael in the Mundy household, and untroubled by Christina’s unmarried status, wishes that each of the sisters could have a lovechild.

Jack’s heathen ways offend Kate’s sense of propriety, already compromised by having an illegitimate child in the family. The other Mundy sisters, simple-minded Rose (Sophie Thompson), boisterous Maggie (Kathy Burke), and placid Agnes (Brennan, reprising her role from the play), are fond of the befuddled Jack, and as fascinated by his tales of Africa as Kate is horrified by them. The household is upset further by a flying visit from Michael’s father, Gerry (Rhys Ifans), who stops off to visit his son and Christina, en route to Spain to fight against Franco in the Spanish Civil War. Gerry develops a rapport with Father Jack, who shows glimmers of clarity amid the fog, in his discussions with the idealistic dreamer.

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The presence of the two men, and the upcoming festivities for the feast of the pagan god Lugh disrupt the rigid rule of the Mundy household: that life is lived as Kate dictates it. Schoolmarm Kate, who had hitherto ruled the clan with a grip of iron, and treated her younger sisters like servants in their own home, starts to lose control over her siblings. They belatedly assert their independence, and escape from her suffocating hold to a future that brings little happiness to any of them.

The limited release of "Dancing at Lughnasa" will put the film in the running for awards nominations for 1998, and its star, Streep, will bear the burden of expectation for the film-makers in this department.

Twice an Oscar winner, and a remarkable 10 times a nominee, the actress probably have the odds stacked against her regardless of her past successes. The Academy has a poor record of nominating lead female performances that are neither sympathetic nor glamorous, and Streep’s character is short on both of these qualities.

And Streep’s apparent discomfort with the nuances of the Donegal accent detract from an otherwise strong performance, though she holds the tone remarkably well in scenes of emotional outburst, where a lesser actor would falter. But her version of this repressed model of propriety seems stiff beyond the strictures that the role demands, and does not feel as convincing as the performances of her fellow female cast members.

Burke, McCormack, Brennan and Thompson are outstanding as the good-natured, put-upon younger sisters, and may be a better bet for honors in the supporting category than Streep in the lead.

Gambon yields mixed results from his performance as Father Jack. His alternating moods, shifting from waking dreams of African village life to occasional bursts of lucidity, are unconvincing, and a disappointment from such a dependable actor. Dublin-born Gambon was knighted recently by the current monarch in England for his distinguished contribution to the arts over the years. Given that his best work includes some fairly unsavory parts written by Dennis Potter and Peter Greenaway, it would make you wonder whether a prim and proper lady like the queen ever gets to see any of the relevant films, before saber-tapping her thespian subjects on the shoulder and dispensing knighthoods.

Director O’Connor maintains a steady hand at the controls of "Lughnasa" and takes advantage of the expansion from stage to the outdoors. The shimmering lakes and heathery hillsides of Donegal are used to good effect without overplaying their picturesque qualities. But it’s unfortunate that the night-time scenes, in which Father Jack goes wandering to the pagan festival of Lughnasa, are as artificially lit as the corresponding scenes on stage. In a part of Ireland that is separated by only three degrees of latitude from southern Norway, Donegal is as close as we get to midnight sun; and the late evening light, when August days stretch into lingering twilight, is extraordinarily beautiful. The filmmakers miss a small opportunity to further abandon the fetters of the stagebound "Lughnasa," and show an undervalued aspect of Ireland’s beauty.

The film also comes up short in its portrayal of the celebrated dance scene. The highlight of Friel’s play was the finale, in which the lifeglow of the five single women, dimmed by years of hardship and self-denial, flares to incandescence for a few glorious moments when the boy’s father repairs a faulty wireless connection and fills their cottage with music. Their tensions and arguments are forgotten as they spontaneously burst into a wild whirl of jigging on the flagstone floor of their kitchen. The uplift of this scene is lost in the film version, by shooting the sisters from the waist up, then cutting to shots of dancing feet, before they all run out into the farmyard. This deprives the cinema audience of the powerful impact given by the full-on view of the cast in the stage version.

It’s a downbeat conclusion to an otherwise credible transfer from stage to screen. But nonetheless, the solid performances by the female cast members, and the sisters’ complex dialogue give us as memorable a piece of ensemble acting as we’ve seen in an Irish film this year.

"Dancing at Lughnasa" opens in New York for a limited engagement on Nov. 13.

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