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Austin Chronicle Dancing at Lughnasa

By Marjorie Baumgarten

JANUARY 19, 1999: 

D: Pat O'Connor; with Meryl Streep, Michael Gambon, Catherine McCormack, Kathy Burke, Sophie Thompson, Brid Brennan, Rhys Ifans. (PG, 94 min.)

Good roles for women are hard to find, so a movie that offers a total of five good parts is something quite exceptional indeed. Dancing at Lughnasa is a screen adaptation of Brian Friel's multi-award-wining play of the same title. Set in Donegal, Ireland in 1936, the film tells the story of five unmarried Mundy sisters who live together in their family home. It's narrated by Michael, the illegitimate son of the prettiest sister Christina (McCormack). Michael lives there in the beloved company of his four aunts and mother, but the story he relates is a wistful recollection of the way things were the summer before they all changed forever. The nominal head of the sisters is the formidable Kate (Streep, with a brogue as fine as any of her previous stage accents); the others include impulsive, fun-loving Maggie (Burke); quiet, hard-working Agnes (Brennan); and simple-minded Rose (Thompson). The movie begins as their older brother Jack (Gambon), returns to the family hearth after 25 years as a priest ministering to the heathen in Africa. It is clear from the outset that not all is right with Jack. He has become a bit dodgy over the years and his world view is now an odd amalgam of pagan and Christian rituals. Next, Michael's unrepentant father appears for an extended visit, though it is his intention to soon leave to join the forces fighting Franco in Spain. The local priest eventually relieves Kate from her teaching post in the village, no doubt due in part to the shamelessness of her family members. Adding to the family's financial woes is the introduction of a new woolen mill, which obviates the demand for the home knitting that sustained them. What's great about the movie is what passes between the sisters: little glances, sighs, and verbal exchanges. Even though Kate has forbidden them to attend the harvest dance in the village, the movie's climax comes when the sisters all spontaneously burst into dance to a song on the radio. Of course, it was not just Michael's close-knit family that was to break up in the late Thirties but all of Europe. You get the sense that Dancing at Lughnasa has a deeper sadness to express than what seems to come across onscreen. While it is a thorough pleasure to watch these fine actresses do their thing, the film leaves one with the nagging feeling that there ought to be more grist to their tale.
3.0 stars

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