There is a special kind of magic that happens only in the live performing arts, and then rarely; when it does, as in the case of Canada’s Stratford Festival production of Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” there isoften an urge to capture it for posterity. The wonder of David Wellington’s spare and evocative film is that the production has survived the transition, resulting in a top-drawer item that nevertheless faces an uphill struggle on the art circuit due to unknown cast and its theatrical/literary slant. It could more easily become a prestige event for upscale TV auds in English-language markets.
It is no small achievement to transfer to celluloid a production minimally designed and acted for the long, awkward thrust stage at the festival’s Tom Patterson Theatre while maintaining the original’s intimacy, detail and emotional impact. But it helps that the Canadian thesps here not only have completely mastered their roles but are well versed in film.
While Wellington’s film lacks an auteur signature, his use of close-ups and offscreen dialogue enhances the material. There are clear indications of a director in tune with his actors, and no doubt the decision to shoot in sequence helped protect the emotional through-line of the stage production.
Introverted and occasionally maudlin (not to mention long this is a slightly abridged version of the original text), “Journey” chronicles a decisive day in the lives of the Tyrones, a troubled small-town Irish-American family modeled on the author’s own clan. The script verges on melodrama and requires great precision in its telling, the sort that treats angst like a second skin rather than an acting style; it is this strength that persuasively vaults this rendition ahead of Sidney Lumet’s 1962 version, which starred Katharine Hepburn, Ralph Richardson, Jason Robards Jr. and Dean Stockwell.
This accomplished company featuring Martha Henry as morphine-addicted wife Mary; William Hutt as her miserly, alcoholic husband, James; Peter Donaldson and Tom McCamus as the sons, and Martha Burns as the maid captures the life struggle of this battered family with an intensity that is both difficult and compelling to watch.
Hutt, arguably Canada’s greatest classical actor, imbues James, the once-prominent Shakespearean thespian, with an underlying softness often missing from this character in performance, and explores fate as much as conscious choice. Henry finds her own exquisite and delicate balance as the closet drug taker, fluttering around the set like a wounded butterfly. McCamus, as the sensitive, consumptive O’Neill surrogate, moves his Stratford Festival stage debut onto the screen with tremendous depth, and his partnership with Donaldson, playing the boozing wastrel long owned by Robards, is achingly convincing.
Wellington, whose first film was “I Love a Man in Uniform” three years ago, directs with a careful eye, and is aided greatly by David Franco’s seamless cinematography. Production designer John Dondertman has faithfully re-created the first floor of O’Neill’s seaside Victorian cottage, down to the details of the small bookcase with a picture of Shakespeare hanging above.
This is a paean to great theater and the classics: It translates onto the screen with luminous warmth and inspired skill, resulting in a film that ranks high among screen adaptations of major stage works.