Adapted from a play and given the heart of a novel, Pat O’Connor’s “Dancing at Lughnasa” is one of the more quietly thoughtful experiences you may have at the movies this season. If that doesn’t exactly sound like a ringing endorsement, let’s break it down.
Thoughtful? Absolutely. Irish screenwriter Frank McGuinness’ adaptation of Brian Friel’s Tony Award-winning play and O’Connor’s measured direction of it put the story of five unmarried sisters in male- and spiritually starved 1930s Ireland on a different course from most screen-destined stage productions.
The movie does open up the play, in the physical sense, allowing the characters to roam from the Mundy sisters’ Donegal farmhouse. We follow schoolteacher and humorless, bossy older sister Kate (Meryl Streep) into her classroom. We go with slow, sanguine Rose (Sophie Thompson) when she sneaks off to meet her married boyfriend Danny (Lorcan Granitch). And we ride along with impetuous Christina (Catherine McCormack) and her sometime lover Gerry Evans (Rhys Ifans) when he comes to visit her and their 8-year-old son on his motorbike.
But those are brief digressions from the real purpose of the film. How and whether the Mundys--suffering great economic hardship and profound loneliness--survive additional pressures placed on them is the thrust of the play, and O’Connor uses the intimacy of the camera to expand on and heighten those elements. The film explores the dreams, emotions and interrelationships of the sisters--and, by extension, of the depressed rural Irish--without being totally dependent on dialogue. (Not that anyone will think there are too few words.)
If thoughtful suggests plodding, unfortunately that’s also true of “Dancing at Lughnasa.” The deliberately paced movie follows the form of a reflective novel, narrated by Christina’s son, looking back as an adult at a time when things were changing too fast.
The catalysts for that change are the arrivals of Gerry, who stops by to quench his sexual thirst and tell Christina of his plans to join the anti-Franco forces in Spain, and the sisters’ older brother Jack (Michael Gambon). An ailing, delusional priest returning from decades of missionary work with lepers in Africa, he is more enthralled with pagan beliefs than Catholic ones.
There is the further economic bad news of Kate’s losing her job, and of the opening of a new textile mill that is cutting into her sisters’ homespun knitting business. And, finally, there is the addition to the household of a working radio, which brings news and music from the outside, creating a strange mix of melancholy and elation.
The most powerful moment in Friel’s play comes when the sisters, at about their lowest point, break into a spontaneous dance to a tune from the radio. That moment of release is also a showcase event in the film, but the exultation of it is diluted somehow.
With the play, we are literally under the same roof as the sisters, and having that free-spirited dance acted out in the confined space virtually draws the audience onto the stage. The additional choreography and editing that go into the film’s dance sequence flattens it out, and O’Connor’s decision to let the dance spill outdoors makes it tone-deaf as well.
The film’s greatest strength is its superb ensemble cast. Streep, manufacturing her eighth or ninth immaculate screen accent, is convincingly unsympathetic as the sisters’ self-appointed guardian; Kathy Burke provides needed jolts of energy as Maggie, the sister most resistant to Kate’s rule; and Gambon is truly wonderful as the unbalanced figure symbolically perched on the line separating hope from despair.
* MPAA rating: PG for mild language and thematic elements. Times guidelines: Though some of it will go over the head of young audiences, there is nothing here that would cause offense.
‘Dancing at Lughnasa’
Meryl Streep: Kate Mundy
Michael Gambon: Father Jack Mundy
Catherine McCormack: Christina Mundy
Kathy Burke: Maggie Mundy
Sophie Thompson: Rose Mundy
Brid Brennan: Agnew Mundy
Rhys Ifans: Gerry Evans
Darrell Johnston: Michael Mundy
A Sony Pictures Classics. Directed by Pat O’Connor. Produced by Noel Pearson. Based on the original stage play by Brian Friel. Screenplay by Frank McGuinness. Music by Bill Whelan. Director of photography Kenneth MacMillan. Editor Humphrey Dixon. Production designer Mark Geraghty. Costumes Joan Bergin. Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes.
Playing at Laemmle’s Royal Theater, 11523 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 477-5581; Edwards Town Center, 3199 Park Center Drive, Costa Mesa, (714) 751-4184.