Posted: 08/19/1999


Dancing at Lughnasa


by Del Harvey

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In a small house in the Irish countryside of Bellybeg, Donegal, live the five Mundy sisters, complacent and seemingly content with their lives and their world, which moves slowly and without much purpose beyond daily routine. Each is a unique type of character, each fills a purpose within the house, and within their shared life together. Katie is the oldest (Meryl Streep), a school teacher and matriarch of the house, both figuratively and financially. She earns most of their shared income and rules their lives in mundane and prudish ways. Maggie (Kathy Burke) is the next oldest, a former beauty giving way to age and its accompanying expansion in all the fleshy places. She provides a balance to Katie’s dour attitudes with her love of cigarettes and a strangely bent optimism. Agnes (Brid Brennan) and Rose (Sophie Thompson) are the middle sisters, and something of a “yin and yang.” Agnes is attractive in a simple sort of way, but very self-controlled. Rose is not quite right, but she’s sweet enough, and provides most of the film’s comic moments through her pattern of speaking without thinking. The youngest sister is Christina (Mary McCormack), who is the prettiest but has the least to say, at least in the scriptwriter’s eyes. The five seem to fit together like the fingers of a hand—perfectly independent and perfectly matched.

They have little contact or need for men, it seems. There is a man living in their midst and he is the narrator of this tale, but he is a small boy—Christina’s son Michael. Being a small boy he is inconsequential in their lives. Soon two other men join their company, and this is the beginning of many small changes within this film that add up to life-affecting upheaval for all. First older brother Jack (Michael Gambon) returns from his missionary in Africa, where he looked after lepers. He’s a bit addle-pated now; sort of an aged version of Michael. He speaks in the vaguely surreal manner that senility brings to the elderly, but often his observations are wise beyond any normal thought processes. Soon after his arrival, Michael’s estranged father (Rhys Ifans) shows up on his beat up old motorcycle, looking to dance with each sister and sweep them off their feet. He is perhaps more of a little boy than either of the other two men; his big news is that he is going off to war, treating the whole thing as though it were a boyish fantasy instead of a horrible act of violent aggression.

The women are industrious, passionate, and full of life. This is the image we are given by the narrator’s remembrance. Yet their day-to-day existence is burdened by the boredom of life’s work and drudgery. With the exception of Katie, each talks excitedly about the coming annual festivities which center around dances taking place in the surrounding villages. Katie’s prudish overbearance soon ends any fantasies of dancing and even momentary escape. Slowly, each of the sisters experiences a life-changing event as that season passes: Katie loses her teaching job; Agnes’ sewing business is replaced by a cotton mill; Christina’s husband goes off to war and is not heard from again; and Rose and Agnes decide to run away to London, leaving an indelible mark upon the other’s lives.

Director Pat O’Connor has done a very nice job with the script by Frank McGuinness (from Brian Friel’s stage play). The only complaint I had with this film was its tendency to feel a little too slow at times. But this is a minor complaint, at best. In this simple tale of lives irrevocably interwoven by the blood of family and exemplified by the joy and simple ecstasy of a dance on a summer’s day shared by five unique women, it is easy to forgive a few minutes taken to fully realize the beauty of a moment shared.

Del Harvey is the founder of Film Monthly. He lives in Chicago and is a devout Bears fan, and therefore deserving of our sympathy.

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