FILM NOVEMBER 30, 1998
Here is Meryl Streep again. (And, I hope, again and again.) Only a few weeks ago One True Thing presented her as an American housewife, with Streep struggling bravely to pry her role free of a cereal ad in a women's magazine. She had more success than the banal role deserved. Now she takes on a much more taxing challenge. She joins a cast of foreign actors and performs as one of the foreign group. In Dancing at Lughnasa (Sony Pictures Classics) she is one of five Irish sisters. The other four are played by native Irish actresses, and Streep--a New Jersey lass--comes off as truly Donegal as the rest of them.
Of course, accents have always been relished as chances for virtuosity in the Streep career--Polish in Sophie's Choice, Dixie in Silkwood, high British in The French Lieutenant's Woman--but in few of the past films was she closely surrounded by a cluster of native speakers. Two of the prominent men in the Lughnasa cast are also non-Irish--Michael Gambon, playing the priest who is the sisters' brother, is English, and Rhys Ifans, the lover of one of the sisters, is Welsh--and they do well, but they do not need to belong to a tight nuclear group as Streep must and as she flawlessly succeeds in doing. I couldn't help wondering what the Irish women in the cast thought of their American sibling. It's easy to imagine an initial resentment as, for commercial reasons, a Yank film star took the dominant woman's role from an Irish actress; still, it's even easier to imagine how Streep's authenticity won them over. Anyway, imaginings aside, the result is marvelously homogeneous. For the 94 minutes of this film, Streep was born in Ballybeg in Donegal just as surely as her sisters were. Once more in a Streep transmutation, accent is almost the least of it, just one aspect of a created character in every shade of mind and soul.
Pat O'Connor, who directed Circle of Friends with warmth and flavor, treats Dancing at Lughnasa almost as the product of the Donegal countryside. For O'Connor, the rigor of the story, its rootedness and its attempts to break loose, seem the harvest of the landscape where it happens. (The year is 1936.) Frank McGuinness made the screenplay from Brian Friel's play--the same McGuinness who did the version of A Doll House that was on Broadway a few seasons back--and has eased it into its new form with no more "opening up" than is helpful.
Which brings us to Friel's play itself. First, the title. Lugh, pronounced Loo, was the Celtic god of the harvest. La Lughnasa, pronounced Loonasa, was the god's feast day and, sixty years ago anyway--which may be one reason why the piece is set back in 1936--was still celebrated in some parts of rural Ireland with bonfires and dancing. Friel's play is not about the survival of paganism, however--not in any deistic sense. It deals with the suppression of earthy instincts and their inevitable explosion, and those instincts are here linked with primitivism. To be natural, the play implies, is to burrow beneath the strictures of our civilization. This theme is signaled at the very start: around the opening credits of this picture about Donegal folk we see African masks and sculptures. The film's license for the African objects comes from Jack, the brother of the five Mundy sisters, a priest who has spent many years in Uganda and, returned to this Donegal cottage somewhat muzzy in his mind, often adverts to his experience of Ugandan rituals.
The Mundy sisters range in age from the twenties well up into the forties, or beyond. Four of them are, presumably, virgins; one of them has a "love child," a boy, but no lover. In fact, during the play the boy's father comes to tell the boy's mother that he's off to fight against Franco in the Spanish Civil War. The youngest sister, who is simple-minded, has a married man tagging after her to console him for his departed wife; she is willing, but her sisters interfere for her own good.
Into this small house of large congested feelings comes the family's first radio. It breaks down, and its repair coincides with a crisis in both the finances of the Mundys and the writhings of buried sexual feelings--along with, in Friel's somewhat patent design, the arrival of Lughnasa. As the radio feeds music into the cottage, one by one the sisters begin to dance, and the climax of the film is this uncharacteristic outburst of near-wild physicality--their own private Lughnasa. The film is able, aptly, to take that dancing outdoors so that they dance on the earth itself. What happens afterward is merely the subsiding of this brief ecstasy: the five sisters settle into lives that differ--but only in kinds of drabness--from their previous lives, as described for us by a voice-over.
This material could have made a solid one-act play, like Synge's Riders to the Sea or Frank O'Connor's In the Train, but Friel has drawn it out into a full-length work which, for all the crinkle and lilt in some of the dialogue, sags in the middle. Once we know the tension, the unsatisfied hungers among the sisters, we sit around waiting for the explosion. Very little integrated, organic drama grows between the exposition and the explosion. Friel fills in the interim with exploration of characters who are not, as he draws them, deeply explorable. (For instance, he plunks in several minutes with the sisters grouped around a table leafing through an old photo album, just to add body to the piece.) Then, after the outburst of dancing, the film is tied off hastily with that most glib of devices, the voice-over.
And that voice-over itself is strange. It is spoken by a man who was the boy of the story, looking back years later on this summer of 1936. A curious retrospect. We have seen a drama of bitterness, frustration, disintegration; but his memory of that summer, he says, "owes nothing to fact." He remembers it as a time when everyone was "floating on sweet sounds." Either Friel is trying to paint a golden glow on his dark story as it fades away or else he is trying to show us how memory, especially that of childhood, can shape the past the way we wish it had been. But if this latter is really what Friel intended, it makes the body of the play seem all the more attenuated--the lengthy posing of some grimness just so that a man, who was a boy then, can remember it otherwise.
But, Friel apart, the making of the film is impressive. In addition to Streep, her sisters are as vital as the script allows--even a bit more so: Catherine McCormack, Kathy Burke, Sophie Thompson, and (from the play's original cast) Brid Brennan. Michael Gambon, by now a welcome figure, generates a kind of awesome pathos as the priest-brother who comes home dazed by Africa.
Stanley Kauffmann is a film critic for The New Republic.
By Stanley Kauffmann