Don’t die angry. Such is the lesson of playwright-provocateur Conor McPherson’s “The Eclipse,” a film of such seductive grace, humor and startling side trips into buttocks-clenching ghastliness that auds won’t know what to make of it (although it won’t keep them from wanting to visit Ireland immediately). After heavy distributor interest at Tribeca, pic was snapped up by Magnolia Pictures; a respectable theatrical run looks likely, as well as bouquets of affection for Ciaran Hinds and Aidan Quinn, who are as good here as they’ve ever been.
McPherson, whose theatrical work (“Shining City,” “The Seafarer”) usually includes supernatural elements, has accomplished what might be called a literary film, inasmuch as the spare but loaded dialogue and the visual signifiers — a father emptying a dishwasher, for instance, near a photo of a hollow-eyed woman wearing a head scarf — tell us everything we need to know in economical, elegant ways. The father is Michael Farr (Hinds), who has yet to adjust to his new role as single head of household; he’s a bit confused about his new role, as are children (Eanna Hardwicke and Hannah Lynch). Mom, dead from cancer, is far from forgotten. In fact, she hasn’t really left the room.
The city of Cobh — its cathedral provides the backdrop for much of the movie (a political-theological as well as aesthetic choice on McPherson’s part) — is in the middle of its annual literary festival. Michael is a volunteer, and among the visiting celebs he’s assigned to drive around are Lena Morelle (Iben Hjejle), a London-based writer of ghost stories, and Nicholas Holden (Quinn), an American whose novels are composed of elements of Hemingway, Mailer and Carver. Nicholas is an egomaniacal brute in intellectual’s clothing, and he wants to revive the one-night fling he had at another festival with Lena, who is wisely declining his overtures. She and Michael, however, seem to be on intersecting trajectories. Michael and Nicholas are on course to collide as well.
But Michael has other emotional irons in the fire of his soul. His father-in-law, Malachy (Jim Norton), is residing, bitter and unhappy, in a nearby nursing home, and he’s also making nightly appearances in Michael’s dreams. Or are they dreams? It’s no great leap to understand Michael’s disordered subconscious as the result of unresolved grief over his wife and worries about his children. But McPherson never lets the viewer off with only one explanation for the strange things that appear — or scream — in the night. The inexplicable is a big part of the picture’s charm.
McPherson’s enormous indulgence, however — and his mistake — is in his visual realizations of Michael’s horrific visions. Yes, the man is having waking nightmares, but the jump-scare manner in which Malachy appears, and the way he’s portrayed, with a ghoulishness worthy of Rick Baker, is too much. Auds will laugh immediately after they gasp, and the effect is to take the viewer right out of the movie. It’s a tonal derailment of everything else that’s happening in the film and, unfortunately, will likely be the film’s big talking point.
Much worthier of conversation are the performances. Quinn, alternately charming and loathsome, is brilliant, as is Hinds, an actor who has elevated everything he’s been in (which ranges from “Prime Suspect” to “Persuasion” to “Munich”). Hjejle, the Danish actress seen in Nils Arden Oplev’s “Portland” and Ed Zwick’s “Defiance,” is certainly glamorous, but also believable as a writer. That the drunkest person in an Irish film is an American (Nicholas) will have to be considered payback for what we did to Barry Fitzgerald.
Production values, notably the shooting of d.p. Ivan McCullough and the editing of Emer Reynolds, are first-rate.