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My Year With Meryl: Dancing at Lughnasa (1998)

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When I began My Year With Meryl, I was excited to watch a select few of her movies that I hadn’t yet seen. There was The Seduction of Joe Tynan, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Heartburn, and Before & After, as well as her 1978 mini-series Holocaust. My favorite by far of the ones I hadn’t seen is A Cry in the Dark, the fascinating, heartbreaking story of a woman accused of murdering her child. Dancing at Lughnasa is officially the last of her movies I hadn’t watched, and it’s one that up until now I knew next to nothing about. When it came to this production, I was only aware of two things—Meryl sports an Irish accent, and she dances around with gusto at some point during the movie.

Unfortunately, now having watched the movie, I struggle to explain much more I know about it than those two aforementioned nuggets. Meryl has appeared in more than fifty films, and Dancing at Lughnasa, adapted by Frank McGuinness and directed by Pat O’Connor (Inventing the Abbots), is one of her most inconsequential. It has some nice cinematography, solid performances, and Meryl once again sporting a truly remarkable accent. But there is little to maintain your interest here. When the most excitement in a movie comes when a man rocks a rowboat back and forth, you know something is off. It’s not just that this film is slow; the story lacks tension and is almost bereft of conflict. Watching Dancing at Lughnasa is equivalent to witnessing everyday life play out on-screen—in real time.

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Of course, it explains a lot that the film is based on a beloved stage-play. Sometimes movies can seamlessly make the transition from stage to screen (Meryl’s own Marvin’s Room is a prime example), but other times the material never really pops when it’s adapted for a major motion picture. The play by Brian Friel premiered in Dublin in 1990 and then ran on Broadway for more than a year, going on to win the 1992 Tony Award for Best Play. Watching the sisters interact on stage could potentially be an intimate and absorbing experience for the viewer, but on film, the story never comes to life. Set in 1930s rural Ireland, Dancing at Lughnasa tells of five sisters (Catherine McCormack, Kathy Burke, Sophie Thompson, Brid Brennan, and Meryl) who live together and go through various ups and downs in their lives, including falling in love and spending time with their elderly brother, a priest played by Michael Gambon. The film is told from the perspective of one of the sister’s young boys, a plot device that never amounts to much.

The most entertainment value in Dancing at Lughnasa comes from watching Meryl’s magnificent performance, which deserves a better movie. With her short black-and-gray haircut, lack of make-up, and dowdy clothes, she disappears into yet another role from her first scene on. It would have been possible for her to be distracting in an ensemble film like this one, given that it features four lesser-known actresses playing her sisters. The viewer could have gotten swept up in the stories of the other performers but not in Meryl’s, since she is American, not Irish, and she is a movie star. But these potential problems never come to pass, and Meryl makes her role of Kate Mundy, the stern older sister, her own.

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The synopsis makes it look like Meryl would have a mere supporting role in this film the same way she plays small roles in other ensemble works, like A Prairie Home Companion, Evening, and The Giver (not to mention her teeny-tiny part in The Homesman). But Meryl is front and center in a lot of Dancing at Lughnasa, and while the film rarely captivates, she has a few significant moments. One in which she stands in an empty classroom, grief-stricken at the possibility that she might never teach again, is the kind of tender acting moment that works beautifully on its own. And then there’s the scene where the five sisters finally dance, toward the end of the movie. There’s nothing particularly special about the way this scene is shot or choreographed, but the one memorable aspect has to do with Meryl herself, the way she refuses to get up and take part in the joy. For so much of the movie she is the one in charge, ultra-serious, never to give in to frivolous pleasures. The way she starts tapping her feet against the floor, failing to hide her growing smile, only to then leap into the air and start dancing around the room like she has about an hour left to live, is the key moment from Dancing at Lughnasa I will never forget.

I have now watched at least once every Meryl movie ever made (except for ones not yet released, of course!). I have my favorites of those I’ve re-watched and written about, and my favorites of those I look forward to watching again soon. In the end, Meryl has been in a lot of great movies, time and time again, and only occasionally does she appear in a misfire. Dancing at Lughnasa is not poorly made, and it has the best of intentions, but it is not one of her more compelling works. She made two films in 1998. The one worth watching is One True Thing.

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