Published November 1, 1998
Dancing at Lughnasa, written by Frank McGuinness from play by Brian Friel and directed by Pat O’Connor, stars Marvelous Meryl Streep doing a vowel-perfect Irish accent as Kate Mundy, a severe old maid and schoolmistress who is trying to hold together her little family in Ireland in the 1930s. The family consists of her four sisters and her brother, all of them damaged souls in some way. The brother, a priest called Jack (Michael Gambon), is just returned from Africa to the little Irish village of Ballybeg in Donegal (actually an Irish village called, of all things, Hollywood) in a state of extreme nervous exhaustion. He is disoriented and thinks he is still in Uganda, a place which he seems to have loved, rather improbably, for its wild pagan energy and Dionysian excess. Uganda thus becomes a kind of symbol for the sexual release that threatens the right little tight little world of determined lower-middle class Catholic respectability that Kate insists upon but that can never stand up for long against nature.
“Spirits, medicine men, ritual sacrifices,” says Kate, shaking her head over Jack’s conversation. “His head is completely turned.” But everyone’s head is being turned in 1936.This is already apparent because of the existence of eight-year-old Michael, the love child of the prettiest sister, Christina (Catherine McCormack) and an itinerant Welshman called Gerry Evans (Rhys Ifans) who pops up in the sisters’ lives from time to time but is obviously not the marrying kind. His latest arrival, the first in 18 months, is on a motorcycle, which adds to the excitement felt by everyone, apparently, except Kate. Gerry has come to announce that he is about to go off to Spain to fight for the Republican faction against Franco, but stays around for some time, sleeping in the barn (by Kate’s decree)—where Christina visits him from time to time in the night.
At the same time, sister Rose (Sophie Thompson), who is “a bit simple” is being courted by Danny Bradley, a local man whose wife has left him and who is therefore not free to marry and thoroughly unsuitable in Kate’s eyes. Rose either doesn’t understand or doesn’t want to understand this, and sneaks off to meet him. Agnes (Brid Brennan), who earns an occasional penny for the household by knitting but is threatened with redundancy when the new knitting factory starts up, is a shy rival for Gerry’s attentions while Maggie (Kathy Burke), is unattractive and apparently unwanted by anybody since her young swain emigrated to Australia years ago. “He wrote; I answered. Australia is far away. That’s the way it goes.” She smokes and affects somewhat shocking views on sex in spite of Kate’s disapproval.
Kate herself is romantically interested in the middle-aged bachelor shopkeeper in the village, but hears casually in gossip one day that he is to be married to someone else. Thus do terrible things happen to Kate without fanfare or drama but quietly crush her hopes one by one. She too is threatened with redundancy, for example—because of falling enrollment in the village school, and when she gets her notice it comes in the midst of anxieties about her unruly sisters and her lunatic brother, and she hardly even has time to consider the momentous consequences it portends for the family.
Lughnasa [pronounced LOON-assa] is the pagan harvest festival devoted to Lugh, god of light, god of music, still remembered in the countryside 13 centuries and more after Ireland’s conversion to Christianity. As the movie represents it to us, it is a surreptitiously licentious gathering in the woods where people drink and spoon and jump over a bonfire. Danny Bradley induces Rose to go with him, but she is suddenly frightened off by the pre- (or post-)Christian overtones of the thing. “They’re just pagans,” she says later. “They’re no connection to us. Those are not our people.” But the others are not so sure. Jack, especially, “out looking at the moon and the stars” and “conducting his own distinctive spiritual search” sees the Lughnasa bonfire as being just like the more exciting harvest festival in Uganda and is only too pleased about it.
Michael grown up (Gerald McSorley) is the voiceover narrator, but his boyish alter ego is curiously absent for most of the action. He is meant to be nothing more than an observer of his mother and aunts and uncle as they slipslide their way down the slope of respectability, pushed by a sexual licence scarcely more imaginable to them than it is to Michael. In other words, the film presents us with what has become a very familiar trope in Hollywood films, that of personal self-authentication by sex-freedom, but without Hollywood’s complete unconsciousness of the problematic aspects to removal of sexual restraints.
In the end, this film comes down on the same side as Hollywood, however. Poor Mad Jack is the film’s advertisement for the psychic debilitation caused by religion and morality—or rather by unavailing attempts to squeeze recalcitrant nature into the religious and moral straitjacket. I liked the scene at the end where the women’s dancing together—“dancing,” as the voiceover tells us, “as if language had surrendered to movement”— becomes a gesture of defiance to their unhappy fates and an expression of unfulfilled promise and joy, just before the family breaks up. But I think the picture fundamentally mistaken in thinking that bourgeois respectability is a contributory cause of their misfortunes, rather than a bulwark against them.