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
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
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
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.