Dancing at Lughnasa
Director: Pat O'Connor. Cast: Meryl Streep, Brid Brennan, Catherine McCormack, Michael Gambon, Kathy Burke, Sophie Thompson, Darrell Johnston, Rhys Ifans. Screenplay: Frank McGuinness (based on the play by Brian Friel).

Pat O'Connor's Dancing at Lughnasa is exactly the sort of hollow and hackneyed picture that Dedee Truitt blasts so perfectly in The Opposite of Sex. The picture is narrated by the disembodied adult voice of a character who is a young child in the events we see portrayed. This older Michael Mundy remembers for us in voice-over, right as the opening credits finish, how different his life would forever become after the events of the summer of 1936, which the movie shall describe.

Just in terms of perspective, this seems like a risky claim, since Michael is not present at most of the events and dialogues that comprise the narrative proper, nor is he truly interested in (much less able to understand) those conflicts that bear emotional freight for the five Mundy sisters who raise him. One of these is Christina (Braveheart and Dangerous Beauty's Catherine McCormack), the youngest and least inhibited of the five—though being the least inhibited of these five is not going to win you any prizes for self-expression or independence. Rounding out the household are four sisters who conform with distressing banality, as does Christina herself, to familiar ensemble-piece "types": dour, commanding eldest sister Kate (Meryl Streep); cheeky, cigarette-smoking Maggie (Kathy Burke, of Nil By Mouth and Elizabeth); laconic, hard-working Agnes (Brid Brennan, who won a Tony for originating the role on-stage); and "simple," romantic Rose (Sophie Thompson, of Persuasion).

Many of these figures—particularly Streep's inexplicably stern Kate and Thompson's feeble-minded Rose—are specifically overused types within female ensemble pieces, though the principal male roles are no less original or involving. Michael Gambon, the rhino-ish star of The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover and usually a reliable, even commanding presence, inherits an egregiously underdeveloped role as the sisters' sole brother, Jack, an ordained priest who returns after a quarter-century of missionary work in Africa. The sisters, or Kate anyway, are concerned by Jack's apparent senility and departure from strict Catholicism in favor of African folkloric rites and religious rituals. Never does Dancing at Lughnasa, however, explain what we are to make of Jack's presence in the household, to what degree we are to understand his character as different from what it might have been 25 years ago, or what it would like us to derive from the juxtaposition of Catholic, African, and Old Irish mythologies within the narrative. Mostly these competing systems of belief provide Kate a reason to purse her lips in either prim devotion (in the first case) or scornful intolerance (the other two).

Rhys Ifans fares little better as the predictably wanderlusty Gerry Evans, with whom young Christina conceived Michael out of wedlock, and who has vowed for no discernible reason to volunteer to fight Franco in Spain. The inevitable failure of her lover to stay put and be a father to their child is Christina's central cross to bear, while Kate faces a lay-off from her schoolteaching position, Rose a dubious suitor who seems already to be married, and Maggie and Agnes the difficulties of remaining by turns plucky and serene while prices rise, family dynamics change, and a factory arrives in town to make obsolete the sisters' knitting enterprises—a literal cottage industry that helps the family unit in its attempts to scrape by.

All of these situations, if not ground-breaking, are capable enough to generate some dramatic momentum or interest, but Dancing at Lughnasa is thuddingly flat-footed on both counts. Kate receives notice of her release from employment in what feels like a half-hour after that event has been pronounced in person by her headmaster; her firing is meant to provide a dramatic peak at two different junctures, and it does so in neither. Meanwhile, the other four sisters never make clear why they obey Kate's outrageously bossy commands of whether they will or will not dance, listen to the radio, or go to bed, even though Agnes at one point calls her a "self-righteous bitch" (where did that mouth come from?) and all four of them at different points criticize Kate's pretension of authority. But as long as they do what she says, why would she change her m.o.? And why would we care?

Brid Brennan is the only one of the five actresses who is able to achieve the wise, cool reserve, the gentle luminescence that the film's rosy-lensed tone and postcard-style photography suggest to be its aim. Even she, however, has nowhere to take her performance in a picture that collects too many characters and plot-lines into too small a space and wobbles wildly around the issues of how independent or cowed, naïve or aware, emancipated or retrograde each sister is intended to be. Streep's occasional tendency toward mannerism and formality are exacerbated by this brittle role. Catherine's illegitimate son and Rose's undiscerning acceptance of a disreputable man's advances are nothing more than easy ways to provoke more bickering among these five; real emotions are nowhere fully explored, and O'Connor's genteel directing style dilutes whatever fascination this material achieved onstage.

The first shot of the movie finds young Michael flying a kite in the fields around his house, then accidentally letting go of the spool and losing his toy to the winds. His disappointment is real and familiar to us in this short, eloquent moment, but his interior world of private experiences (despite his being the narrator of the piece) is dropped almost entirely afterward. It is nice to see a picture that doesn't force an overly quick pace or an over-determined structure where none would be appropriate, but no one involved has really forced anything whatever from this script, leaving a shapeless and frequently incoherent picture that is nothing if not sincere, but still unable to demonstrate what makes this story worth telling. Grade: D

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