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Slow Dancing

Lughnasa stumbles in the leap from play to motion picture

Dancing at Lughnasa arrives brightly wrapped. It's the screen version of one of the most acclaimed stage plays of the '90s. It stars the redoubtable Meryl Streep and a handful of fine British and Irish actors with Old Vic and West End acting credentials. But its story of the thwarted lives Irish society offered its women never comes to life, despite giving off the occasional spark. The film itself is thwarted by its theatrical origins and never comes to cinematic life.

The reasons for the film's failure are sadly familiar. The magic we crave from live performance -- the larger-than-life dialogue, the mythopoetic conceits -- generally curdles on the big screen. The transfer can work if the source material is dark enough, as in the case of Glengarry Glen Ross. But when the effect is actually supposed to be magical, as it is here, you've got a losing proposition.

The film has its moments when it stays close to the mean details of the life in the 1930s' Mundy household: five unmarried sisters, one of them a bit simple in the head, another a mother to a love child. Streep plays Kate, a queen bee whose only drones are her sisters. A teacher, she's the only Mundy who brings home a paycheck. Maybe that's why she's the haughtiest of the sisters, the one most likely to give or take offense. Streep does her usual fine work here, especially when Kate moves from strength to weakness, as when her teaching job is threatened by the inexplicably hostile priest who runs her school. But at other times her Kate seems pointlessly inconsistent. At one point she agrees with an aggrieved sister that she is a "righteous bitch." But a moment later she's back to scolding, as if she'd never had her revelation.

This might sound like Kate is simply a fully rounded, complicated character. But she isn't. The characters, including her, are all rather limited, even in their exuberant "dancing" moments, so Kate's flashes of warmth and self-awareness seem more like hiccups than emotional development.

The absence of context is part of the problem. The film doesn't explain why the sisters live such isolated lives, or why none of them married. I suppose it has to do with the Irish diaspora of that period and with all the eligible men being off in London, Boston or the monastery. But that is never explained or even hinted at. Frank McGuinness's screenplay (from Brian Friel's play) didn't cover enough of the characters' world.

It certainly doesn't include many men, and the three who have prominent roles are problematic. I've already mentioned the fantastically mean priest apparently bent on destroying the sisters. Maybe he's annoyed by the presence of their brother Jack (Michael Gambon, television's Singing Detective), a priest who has just returned from 25 years among the African heathens. Only he's been converted by them, so he's more likely to hold a sacred fertility ceremony than to transubstantiate a communion host. His change might have been more powerful and threatening if Jack hadn't gone addle-minded in the process. But he's more a harmless old fool than a threat to decent Catholic society, which is apparently how the other priest sees him.

The film's other man isn't much help either. He's Gerry (Rhys Ifans), father to the love child. He's a rather generic charmer and gadabout, too busy dreaming of going to Spain to fight Franco to take care of his son, the almost characterless Michael.

That seems to be the nub of the problem. This resolutely ensemble film finally suffers from a lack of character development. Two of the sisters have no real function, and the men are weak or not credible. The women are so underdeveloped that they never seem to wonder what happened to Father/Brother Jack over in Africa, about how he came to lose his religion and most of his mind. Director Pat O'Connor wants instead to sweep us away with the pagan poetry of Africa and the back hills of Ireland. There's more than one reference to Lugh, "the ancient god of music and dance," whom a theatergoer might be happy to hear about, but not a movie patron. In the movies, you gotta give us the ancient god of music and dance himself. You can't just talk about him.

Dancing at Lughnasa.
Rated PG.
Directed by Pat O'Connor. With Meryl Streep, Michael Gambon, Catherine McCormack, Sophie Thompson and Rhys Ifans.

 
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