Sunday, March 08, 2015

An Irish Film To Remember

Spencer Tracy once remarked about Katharine Hepburn, “There’s not much meat on her bones, but what’s there is cherse.” Similarly, the little bit of dancing in Dancing at Lughnasa is “cherse” indeed. When the five Irish sisters finally give in to their urge to dance, viewers are treated to an exuberant display of folk dancing that represents the best in quality film editing and directing. Looking back on that night, the movie’s narrator calls it, “Dancing as if language had surrendered to it; dancing as if words were no longer needed.”

The lot of Irish women in the 1930s was not a happy one. But the five unmarried Mundy sisters gain strength and courage from each other.  Despite poor economic conditions, individual eccentricities, and birth of a love child to the youngest sister, these women try bravely to keep the family unit intact. Led by Kate (Meryl Streep), the strict oldest sister, they knit gloves, raise chickens, and care for Michael (Darrell Johnston), an 8-year-old illegitimate child of romantic Christina (Catherine McCormack). Kate, who teaches in the village Catholic school, worries mostly about their simple-minded sister, Rose (Sophie Thompson). Big-hearted Maggie (Kathy Burke) and stoical Agnes (Brid Brennan) round out the Mundy female clan.

Although not central to the action, three men play important roles in the lives of this family. Their long-absent older brother (Michael Gambon), a man of the cloth, returns from Africa as a religious outcast. Instead of converting the natives, they seem to have converted him. He and Michael both receive unconditional love from all five Mundy sisters. And Michael’s father (Rhys Ifans) makes a farewell visit before leaving to fight in Spain.

A great ensemble cast contributes to the excellence of this moving film. Streep’s Irish brogue is perfect, and Thompson’s unusual portrayal of Rose emerges as a memorable one.   

Based on Brian Friel’s Tony Award-winning play, Dancing at Lughnasa avoids the pitfalls of so many plays adapted for the screen.  Thanks to screenwriter Frank McGuinness and director Pat O’Connor, the movie version opens up the story to include such memorable scenes as a pagan ritual deep in the Donegal hills and a dangerous picnic on a boat. O’Connor states, “The challenge for me in making this film was to draw together intense and extraordinary things -- romance, humor, tragedy, realism, and mysticism -- in a work that is, I hope, emotionally uplifting.” 

Filmmaker O’Connor met his challenge with flying colors.  One doesn’t have to be Irish (or a woman) to appreciate this wonderful movie. (Released by Sony Pictures Classics and rated “PG” for mild language and thematic elements.)

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