At the heart of Pat O'Connor's rich, bittersweet Dancing at Lughnasa lies the quaint notion that, once upon a time, people, especially women, whose youthful dreams were dashed, might have been able to attain a state of grace, a kind of ascetic nobility to which the rest of the world had no access. This is no longer an easy concept to grasp in this era of half-empty nunneries, swift social mobility, and instant gratification. Unless, of course, you happen to be a Muslim in Bosnia or a poor black anywhere in America. Then you might get it.
The lonely hearts of Lughnasa belong to five women who've paid the price for growing up Catholic, unlettered, and unliberated in the rural Ireland of the 1920s and 1930s. The Mundy sisters, all of them unmarried, have lost their former beaus to others or to wanderlust, and their dreams to time. Now, in the summer of 1936, they count out the days on a rocky patch of farm in Donegal, knitting gloves, cutting peat, and tending to a rooster and his harem of hens. The Holy Ghost might not approve, but the Mundys have also just bought their first wireless set.
The only real breadwinner is the eldest, stern Kate (Meryl Streep, complete with a brogue as thick as Guinness Stout), an upright schoolteacher who doubles as an unappointed morals officer to her siblings. Maggie (Kathy Burke) plays earth mother, Agnes (Brid Brennan) frets, and sweet-tempered Rose (Sophie Thompson) takes refuge in her simple-mindedness. Young Christina (Catherine McCormack) is the unfulfilled romantic of the brood, and the source of the family's scandal: She's mother to an illegitimate eight-year-old named Michael (Darrell Johnston), who is beloved by all the Mundys, and through flashbacks, narrates the story.
Director O'Connor, whose career has been a case of hit (1987's A Month in the Country) and miss (1997's Inventing the Abbotts), does a nice job here creating just the right poignancy, giving his splendid actresses full reign and capturing the rough green beauty of Donegal. But the piece's literary roots remain more important than where the camera sits.
Frank McGuinness's screenplay is adapted from a prize-winning drama by the eminent Irish playwright Brian Friel, who says he was inspired by the real-life stories of his own maiden aunts. It pivots on a homecoming that disturbs the Mundy sisters' fragile equilibrium. Their beloved brother Jack (Michael Gambon), a priest, returns from a quarter-century of missionary work in Uganda, and at first he appears to be a broken old man. Jack babbles on about the spirits inside yams, as well as ritual sacrifices (which does not endear him to the local parish priest); in one of his funks he dreamily beats a pair of sticks against a water bucket. The real story, of course, is that although Father Mundy may have lost his mind going native in Africa, he also liberated himself from the past in a way his sisters cannot imagine. Their idea of a big time in repressed Catholic Ireland is walking three miles to the dry goods store in Ballybeg to buy a sack of flour.
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The Mundy farm is also revisited by little Michael's father, a charming bounder named Gerry Evans (Rhys Ifans) who drops by on his way to the Spanish Civil War. Gerry, too, is a free spirit of the sort women are not allowed to be: He feels no obligation to his son, or to Christina, except in the moment. But he also lights a fuse of possibility in the joyless sisters. So does Dancing at Lughnasa's symbolic event -- an annual back-hills dance celebrating the harvest deity Lugh, the pagan god of music and light.
If we haven't already grasped the irony of the Mundy sisters' plight, here it is writ large: Once a year most of the townsfolk can break loose from the harsh proscriptions of Mother Church and wallow in the old Celtic sensuality, leaping through bonfires, swilling on the poteen jug, and dancing with abandon. But not even this release is allowed the Mundy women: In the film's big liberating set piece, they spontaneously create their own unbridled Lughnasa back at the farm, linking arms as sisterly spirits and dancing a wild jig as a glory of fiddle, flute, and drum pours out of their new radio set. In the heat of this outburst, old resentments, abrasions, and strictures are forgotten. For one transcendent moment they are free women who have overcome their tragic fate.
For some viewers this minor miracle may seem like a scant reward for women so long imprisoned by their own culture. It is scant. But Dancing at Lughnasa creates a vivid portrait of a time and a place and a condition of life that takes hold of our emotions in a way most movies don't. As the imperious Kate, Streep puts in another beautifully nuanced performance, but in no way does she outrank the other members of the ensemble. You can feel the emotions of each Mundy sister on the surface of your skin: the yearning, the disappointment, the bravery wrung from deprivation. It's almost enough to rekindle a belief in the nobility of outcasts.
Dancing at Lughnasa.
Directed by Pat O'Connor. Written by Frank McGuinness, based on a play by Brian Friel. Starring Meryl Streep, Michael Gambon, Catherine McCormack, Kathy Burke, Sophie Thompson, and Rhys Ifans.