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Dancing at Lughnasa

Review by Gregory Avery
Posted 25 December 1998

  Directed by Pat O'Connor.

Starring Meryl Streep, Kathy Burke,
Catherine McCormack, Bríd Brennan, Sophie Thompson,
Rhys Ifans and Gerald McSorley.

Screenplay by Frank McGuinness,
from the play by Brian Friel.

Dancing at Lughnasa, Brian Friel's beautiful, spirited, powerful stage play about five sisters living in a house in County Donegal, Ireland, in 1936, has been taken apart, rearranged, and turned into a drowsy domestic period piece, removing whatever made the material special to begin with and, even, much of a reason for us to be watching a film version of it at all. There were some very good reasons why Friel confined the action of his play to the course of one summer's day, with narration that provided the context for what we were seeing, while placing the now-famous dance scene in the middle of Act One (if you see the play, you'll understand why this makes sense). The film's director, Pat O'Connor, who made Circle of Friends and is swooning around the Irish countryside again, and its screenwriter, playwright Frank McGuinness, have spread the action out over an indeterminate amount of time, loosening all the dramatic tension, and everything that was inferred in the play has now been boorishly spelled out. And the dance scene has been plunked smack dab down at the end of the picture, like plum pudding at the end of a big feast, with lots of brief, aggravating hints leading up to it.

While Kathy Burke, who on first glance is not one's first choice for a movie actress (she played the mistreated wife in Nil by Mouth), does some good work as one of the sisters (the one who has a passion for "Wild Woodbine" cigarettes), two of the film's best performers are laid very low, indeed: Meryl Streep tries, and fails, to make much out of a role that reduces her to being a one-dimensional scold; and Michael Gambon, as the brother who comes home after being desiccated and addled by disease, is used as a figure of -- ugh! -- comic relief. (I question whether Gambon, the great man who played Dennis Potter's "Singing Detective", was fully aware that his performance would be cut in such a way as to make him look so ridiculous.)

It ends up as the type of moviegoing experience that makes you want to take the blunderheads responsible out into the street for a few good lashings with a hickory switch. As it is, I contented myself with the fact that, at just over an hour and a half, it was short.

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