The Eclipse (2009)

Playwright and director Conor McPherson’s adaptation of stories by Billy Roche, who co-wrote the screenplay with him, is an attempt to restore eeriness, adult shading, and emotional and metaphysical unease to the traditions of the cinematic ghost story. McPherson wrote the wry 1997 film I Went Down before directing a couple of features himself, and here his gifts seem quite mature. The great Ciarán Hinds stars as Michael Farr, a recently widowed woodworking teacher and organiser for an annual literary and arts festival in his small but beautiful home town of Cobh, Ireland. Left raising his teen daughter (Hannah Lynch) and younger son (Eanna Hardwicke) after his wife’s death, Michael begins to experience odd phenomena, initially minimal and difficult to perceive, like hearing unnerving night cries, and seeming to glimpse his aged father-in-law Malachy (Jim Norton) one night in his house, but Malachi was in his nursing home all the time, fuming, in fact, because Michael forgot to pick him up for the opening night of the festival. Michael continues as he has done, however, pushing against the resistance of incipient menace and lingering, unstated grief, and he’s given the job of picking up and ferrying about two writers who are attending the festival.

Nicholas Holden (Aidan Quinn) is a successful Irish-American author who’s quietly coming apart at the seams, beset by artistic insecurity, marital unhappiness, and the inevitable drinking problem. Lena Morelle (Iben Hjejle) writes about supernatural experiences drawn from life, and once had a one-night fling with Nicholas. Nicholas has talked Lena into attending the festival, and is desperate to resume an affair with her, an idea she’s not at all keen about, especially when she realises that his supposed separation from his wife at the time of their tryst was a fiction. She and Michael instead strike up a gently amicable relationship, loaded with muted anxieties and uncertain loyalties: Michael’s desperate need not to forget his wife and Lena’s uncertain sense of responsibility to the plainly floundering Nicholas confuse an obvious comfort in each other’s company. She can hear the same night cries that Michael does, and they both try to pass them off as bird calls. Lena’s fascination with mutable reality, she explained, commenced in a childhood experience of an apparition. Michael’s experiences worsen as Malachy’s spirit appears to him in a mangled and terrifying state, almost causing him to crash his car at one point, and assaulting him from within a cupboard in his bedroom.

The Eclipse treads familiar ground. The middle-aged romance, the homey old seaside town setting, the lessons about coping with grief, and the standard wry portrait of the artistic male’s menopause in the cliché figure of the drunken writer, all threaten a middling pastel chamber drama. But McPherson, as well as coaxing fine nuance of behaviour from his actors that enriches the material, creates his mood of credulity with care, his atmosphere sepulchral yet warm, realistic and yet subtly disquieting. Nor is any element allowed to dominate, and the story proceeds in a coolly curtailed, ambiguous fashion. The environs of Cobh, thoroughly old world, look like a place where ghosts might still look, but the Farrs’ home, the tourist-catering infrastructure of the town, and the bustling, fawning atmosphere of the festival, is portrayed with naturalistic fidelity. Ivan McCullough’s cinematography paints the scenery in thick black shadows, silvery, exposed-feeling exteriors and warmly hued interiors, aiding McPherson incalculably in creating his world where the gnawing vagaries of existence can believably bleed into another, altogether stranger world, and yet remain readily familiar. The film’s mood, indeed, is one that mainstream cinema’s barely seen since the heyday of Jacques Tourneur, in presenting a thoroughly modern setting infused with disquiet and believably porous boundaries between the corporeal and the mystical.

Gorgeous performances from Hinds, Quinn and Hjejle are both incidental and key pleasures in the film. Quinn drips anxiety and steadily rising, hysterical aggression from his pours, whilst Hjejle offers a graceful but compact, cagey intelligence, imbuing Lena with a conscientious but not foolish nobility. They throw Hinds’ characterisation into effective relief, his Michael a credibly decent and good-natured man but one naturally uncomfortable with probing within himself; his solid shape and oak-carved features suggest the bubbling potency of feeling he’s keeping tightly leashed. Small moments mesh to create a believable texture, from Michael irritably shepherding his son out of a petrol station when he absconds for some sweets during the night, his glowering disquiet when he finds one of his friends has blabbed to Lena about his life story, to Nicholas’s wife, unexpectedly arriving to pluck his perpetual glass from his hand like someone long used to it. The gentleness of this sedimentary structuring segues into the surprisingly shock-horror ghostly visitations, with gnarled hands springing out of the earth and leering apparitions appearing in windows and mirrors. Whilst these effects suggest an uncertainty of how to integrate the supernatural with the realistic, McPherson’s approach works insofar as there’s a genuinely disturbing quality to the eruptions of illogic in large part because of their sheer, unexpected fright-night relish.

The ghosts that appear to Michael suggest lingering guilt and severed lives and also presage future loss: Malachy’s spirit keeps appearing to Michael while he’s still alive, an extra-sensory manifestation of fear, rage, and frustration at approaching, inevitable death, whilst his dead wife’s screams out in the night refuse to leave Michael alone. This is haunting conceived as emotional ephemera, lancing through the thin veil of everyday life in taunting reminder of mortality, before a final visitation brings the grace of catharsis. Such an idea seems to spring, refreshingly, from an authentic sense of a folk tradition of such emanations as the lingering manifestations of deep responsibility and the gnawing nature of familial love. The ghosts won’t depart until Michael confronts what’s gone fetid inside himself. Alongside the spiritual drama builds the triangular battle of the main characters, culminating in a tragicomic boxing match between the men, and a postscript that offers the hope of new horizons for Michael. His bruises from battles with ghosts and men both, the film suggests, are all a price to be paid for any hope at all. A fine little work.

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