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Weekly Alibi Dancing at Lughnasa

By Devin D. O'Leary

JANUARY 19, 1999:  Ireland--as stage and screen would have us believe--is full of either leprechauns, romance and twinkling rural charm or dreary conflict involving struggling potato farms, besotted artists or the IRA. Sometimes Ireland transcends its own cliché (as it does in Waking Ned Devine or My Left Foot). Sometimes it merely wallows in it. Director Pat O'Connor's filmic adaptation of Brian Friel's stageplay Dancing at Lughnasa brings to bear all the overcast atmosphere and dour drama that Depression-era Ireland can muster.

American acting icon Meryl Streep adopts a pitch-perfect Irish brogue (a gimmick that can hardly be called novel at this point in her multi-accented career) and takes up the lead role as the eldest sister to a dysfunctional clan of rural femmes. The entirely unmarried Mundy clan lives in backwater Ballybeg, Ireland, tending over a ramshackle farm and carping at each other on a regular basis. Each of the five Mundy sisters bears a certain affectation so we can tell them apart. There's the dumb one, the romantic one, the irreverent one, the serene one. Being the eldest, Kate Mundy (Streep) is called upon to be the imperious sourpuss of the bunch.

Youngest sis Christina (the romantic one) has an eight-year-old son conceived out of wedlock. In true stage drama fashion, an older version of young Michael narrates the events portrayed in Dancing at Lughnasa with an overly reverent tone. He's telling us, of course, about "that magical summer" in which "everything changed." Sadly, from our vantage point, there isn't a whole lot that does change in old Ballybeg from start to finish. Michael's absentee father shows up and hangs out for a bit before joining the war in Spain. Pop kisses him on the forehead at one point, so I'm guessing they connect. The Mundy gals' barmy brother Jack shows up after 25 years in Africa as a missionary. Jack's gone a bit spare in the intervening time and spends most of his triumphant return wandering around the farm in a goofy hat acting senile. Scatterbrained sister Rose's favorite chicken gets killed at one point. That's about the heights of drama that Dancing at Lughnasa has to offer.

There is much talk about dancing scattered throughout the film's meandering narrative. The Irish, apparently, are prone to fits of spontaneous Riverdancing whenever the sound of a fiddle is heard (a genetic trait that must have overlooked me). "Lughnasa," by the way, is a pagan festival which the sisters frequently discuss attending. These gals just want to dance, dance, dance! It's symbolic you see. Something to do with freedom or joy in the face of hardship or something to that effect. Unfortunately, Kate is there at every turn to spoil her sisters' fun. For some reason she's got a major bug up her ass about dancing and poo-poos any attempt to engage in such frivolous and unseemly behavior.

For all of Kate's parsimonious proscriptions, you'd think these gals were confined to a Quaker work camp. Turns out, though, she's only trying to keep the family together. Each sharp judgment doled out in the Mundy household is quickly followed by a loving forgiveness. Love and fight, love and fight--ain't this just the earthiest little clan you ever did see?

When the gals finally do manage to kick up their heels in wild cathartic abandon (an act that you just know is destined to happen), there's a rather dull, prescribed air to it all. What's the point, really? None of them is happy, none of them (least of all Kate) has suffered a massive change of character--plus they're still stuck in the gloomiest mudhole in Ireland with no men, no money and no dramatic closure in sight. The Mundy sisters dance, it seems, because the script has finally run out of reasons to keep denying them such wondrous terpsichorean elation. As if sudden, unprovoked cavorting could make up for all the dreary drama that has transpired.

Having seen the stageplay upon which this film is based, I can definitely say that O'Connor's film neither adds to nor subtracts from Friel's original. Although there are a few shots of pretty lakes and quaint little villages thrown in to "open up" the play, it remains steadfastly stagebound. Whereas stage drama can often successfully revolve around the tiniest of emotional occurrences, film drama generally needs larger, more visual events to succeed. On screen, the events in Dancing at Lughnasa come across as minuscule, almost petty. Unless you're really hankering for yet another one of Meryl Streep's laudable accents, then this drab drama doesn't have much else to offer.

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