The Eclipse
Reviewed in October 2009 / Click Here to Comment
Director: Conor McPherson. Cast: Ciarán Hinds, Iben Hjejle, Aidan Quinn, Jim Norton, Hannah Lynch, Eanna Hardwicke, Billy Roche, Avian Egan, Mia Quinn. Screenplay: Conor McPherson and Billy Roche (based on the short story collection Tales from Rainwater Pond by Billy Roche).
Twitter Capsule: Not without its brooding chills and can't fault the leads, but adds up to precious little, and Quinn's embarrassing

Photo © 2009 Magnolia Pictures/Irish Film Board
I have never seen a Conor McPherson play performed, but having read the scripts for some of his subtle chillers like Shining City, I have always felt that they both reward and require a creative team who is able to capitalize on the fine detailing of his dialogue and on sleights of hand that tend to be more atmospheric than they are plot-driven or hyperbolic. Without that kind of delicate creative management, I suspect his plays would undermine his pedigreed reputation and come across as solid but undistinguished little diversions, which is sadly the fate of The Eclipse, guided by his own directorial hand and co-written by McPherson and Billy Roche, who also authored the short stories from which this film derives. If you are a satisfied customer whenever a 90-minute dart into the movies feels low-intensity and casually out-of-body, like a train ride spent snuggled up with a mystery novel you'd happy give away to a stranger across the aisle, then this handsome, low-lit, and damp-aired movie might well be a viable outing. Certainly, you could comb many a multiplex and encounter no better actor than Ciarán Hinds of Persuasion and There Will Be Blood, though his rare and gratifying promotion to the lead role of The Eclipse unfortunately affords him less to play than many of his decisively sketched sideline characters in other films have done. He appears here is Michael Farr, a recent widower with a son and a daughter, a father-in-law in a local nursing home, a half-renounced hobby of writing supernatural fables that appear to embarrass him, and a volunteer gig chauffeuring the visiting talent at the annual Literary Festival in his seaside town of Cobh, in County Cork. You'd imagine that a writer as understatedly deft as McPherson would find ways to bleed the implications of each of these facets of Michael's identity into the others, or at least to fix on some priorities about what makes Michael most interesting as a character. Unfortunately, he mostly floats among these ascribed roles and backstories, no matter how sturdily Hinds tries to keep a bead on him.

Meanwhile, The Eclipse's predominating habits for evoking menace, worldly or otherwise, involve lots of high-contrast silhouettes of dark figures against bright backgrounds—sometimes inverted as gaping, lamp-lit figures pinned inside ink-black spaces. These aesthetic choices further restrict Hinds and the other actors from giving the more lived-in, cut-to-size performances that they often manage to wrestle out of the scenes that McPherson hasn't swaddled in his layers of brooding atmosphere. (Watching in the context of the film festival, I actually got more of a chuckle of recognition out of this film's scattered inserts of badge-wearing strangers making semi-forced small talk at the writers' convention in Cobh than I got genuine chills out of the more elaborately portentous camera set-ups.) Iben Hjejle, the onetime phenom of Mifune and High Fidelity, most recently spied like a passing spirit in two quick bits of Chéri, summons a fetching blend of erotic and self-protective impulses and of gently rattled nerves in a terrific dinner scene with Aidan Quinn, even though the latter is leeringly, uncharacteristically awful as a bullish celebrity among horror novelists, growling about unsophisticated fans and shouting too many of his lines. The tensest scenes in the movie involve Hinds and Hjejle driving from the convention site to her seaside quarters, she quite drunk and he radiating an admirably low-frequency vibe of yearning, sadness, politeness, and discomfort. McPherson reduces the scene with some abrupt sound cuts to birds cawing and foxes shrieking in the darkness outside, but the painterly light sources and sustained long shots, here and elsewhere in The Eclipse, often yield some interesting, offhandedly elegant snapshots of confused human behavior, not to mention making their own artful impressions at the level of the image.

Still, the whole thing comes to a wash as Quinn's bellyaching narcissist becomes too pronounced as a villain, and as the strolls through old cemeteries, the sudden rainstorms, the blowing curtains, and the surprise slicks of blood on linoleum floors start to make The Eclipse disappointingly generic. "I'm haunted by that night," Quinn's character says to Hjejle's about a recent, reckless liaison that she'd rather forget, and however true it is that wayward lovers often stay wedded to the lingo of preternatural forces ("Maybe we knew each other in a past life," he also says), these kinds of double-entendres feel cheap and amateurish in the already-risky idiom of a chilly gathering of horror writers in a murky Irish hamlet. The officiously "minor" piano score and the compulsory outbreak of semi-suppressed anger furnish their own predictable beats, however serviceable in the context of an off-the-cuff ghost story. The biggest letdown in The Eclipse, though—particularly from an artist whose most unnerving tableau in Shining City involves nothing more than an unbidden character standing behind a door—is the lazy opting for coarse audio and visual shock tactics at two moments when Hinds's Michael really starts to lose it. I am happy to be frightened, even by a jerry-rigged vehicle, as my response to Paranormal Activity hopefully testifies, but The Eclipse shoots willy-nilly for too many registers of fear, and it never emanates a confident sense of what we are learning about these men and women by watching them panic, shudder, and second-guess themselves. The experience of this comely movie is considerably cheapened by its variance of tones and its uncertainty about its own motivations. I would happily recommend The Eclipse if you're up at night and looking for a late diversion, but if McPherson had really done his job, this is the last context in which you'd want to watch the movie. Short of the grandstanding Quinn, there's nothing in the film worth taking major exception to, but I can't imagine anyone having trouble sleeping afterwards. Grade: C–

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I'd love to see McPherson get better at what he's doing, but even the parts of The Eclipse that click aren't enough to make it a genuinely interesting experience or to foster a lasting impression.

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