“Dancing at Lughnasa” reps a conventionally elegiac screen adaptation of Brian Friel’s outstanding play about the turning point in the lives of five Irish sisters. In opening up Friel’s work, which has enjoyed success in innumerable international productions since its debut in 1990, and in compressing it down to an hour-and-a-half, filmmakers have both suffused it with local period color and diluted much of its cumulative emotional impact.
Given the work’s cultural pedigree, fine cast led by Meryl Streep and even the current vogue for things Irish, Sony Classics should be able to position this as a solid class offering in the U.S., where it opens exclusively in New York and Los Angeles in November, followed by wide specialized release at Christmas.
Friel’s play, widely regarded as one of his best, won three Tony awards on Broadway as well as the Olivier and Evening Standard awards in the U.K. Noel Pearson, former head of Dublin’s Abbey Theater where the play was first produced, took responsibility for the film production, engaging another Irish playwright, Frank McGuinness, for the adaptation, and Irish director Pat O’Connor to direct.
Set on a farm in Donegal in 1936, the piercingly melancholy work centers upon the Mundy sisters, who just manage to make ends meet. All unmarried, due in part to the man shortage caused by emigration, the religious calling and wanderlust, the sisters are nominally led by the eldest, Kate (Streep), a buttoned-up, middle-aged schoolteacher upset to learn that she is called “the gander” behind her back. Maggie (Kathy Burke) is the liveliest of the bunch, which also includes the dependable Agnes (Brid Brennan), the “slow” Rose (Sophie Thompson), who is furtively carrying on with a married man, and the prettiest of the quintet, Christina (Catherine McCormack).
Christina is responsible for the family’s one moral embarrassment, “love child” Michael (Darrell Johnston), fathered by a man who’s never around. In a way, however, the eight-year-old is the center of the family, as he’s doted on endlessly by his aunts. Tale is narrated in wistful retrospect by the adult Michael, who remarks of the summer in question: “This was the beginning of things changing. Quickly. Too quickly.”
These changes are set in motion by the return of the sisters’ older brother Jack (Michael Gambon), a priest who has spent decades as a missionary in Africa and who now seems not only a bit batty but, from the Irish Catholic point of view, suspiciously affected by the ungodly ways of the people he was meant to convert. Shortly thereafter, Michael’s father, Gerry Evans (Rhys Ifans), turns up unannounced and wins back the affection of the boy and his mum before revealing that he intends to join the International Brigade to fight Franco in Spain.
But more significant in the long run are the changing local conditions that indelibly impact the Mundys’ traditional but highly fragile way of life. Kate, who always insists that the family will get by and can’t look trouble in the face, loses her teaching position, and the imminent opening of a woolens factory threatens another source of the sisters’ income, hand-woven clothing. Conclusion is bleak, a reflection that leaving Ireland was indeed the only choice for many people, but that even that was not enough to guarantee a positive change of fortunes.
Thematic elements are worked in lightly, as most scenes are devoted to gossip and quotidian chitchat among the women. The judgmental Kate is ever-ready with a frown and tendency to deny any opportunity for fun, most notably the sisters’ desire to attend the annual harvest festival dance. But it is Kate’s relative severity that allows for the feeling of wild release and exaltation when the sisters, inspired by a tune on the radio, spontaneously break into an exhilarating dance that expresses their pent-up frustrations, sense of togetherness and the pagan roots of their homeland, an element linked to Jack’s experiences in Africa.
The basic meanings of Friel’s play come through in the film, but with less power than they did onstage. O’Connor’s direction is straightforward with leanings toward the sentimental; efforts to open the work up are OK as long as they keep the action around the farm, but lessen the building tension and sense of foreboding when they involve such scenic distractions as multiple excursions on Gerry’s motorcycle.
Ultimate impact is mutely sad rather than wrenchingly tragic, as it should be when the work is performed to maximum effect. This is no fault of the thesps, who come through winningly. Streep’s Kate is a woman whose limited experience and fear of the unknown stem directly from the sense of rectitude that rules her life; at the same time, she is loving and understanding with her family. Burke, who won a Tony for her performance as the more broad-minded Maggie, a woman who probably would have thrived in a more cosmopolitan setting, repeats her fine work here. Brennan and Thompson are quietly effective in the background, while McCormack is sweetly appealing as the sister whose looks and romantic nature give her the best shot at escape, but is nonetheless not bold or imaginative enough to assert herself. Ifan is okay as the here-today, gone-tomorrow lover-father, and Gambon, while plenty eccentric, has given little effort to an Irish accent.
Location work in late summer imbues the film with a golden hue perfectly in tune with the nostalgic tone of the narration, and contributions of lenser Kenneth MacMillan, production designer Mark Geraghty and composer Bill Whelan all aid the cause.