Dancing at Lughnasa (1998)
The Not So Little Women
You work hard at your job, you try to keep the home together but suddenly you realize that cracks are formin' everywhere - Kate
I should think that many who see "Dancing at Lughnasa" listed in the TV section will be interested for the same reason I was as it stars Meryl Streep. And to be honest Meryl Streep as well as all its other stars which include Michael Gambon, Kathy Burke and Rhys Ifans all put in enjoyable performances. But there is a but and that but is that "Dancing at Lughnasa" is a rather slow movie which doesn't seem to have a point other than being a nostalgic look back at a slice of life in rural Ireland during the summer of 1936. To be fair that slice of life is very personal to writer Brian Friel as it relates to his own family, and his story became an award winning stage production. But in adaptation from stage to screen something must have gone missing making "Dancing at Lughnasa" pleasant but also forgettable.
As Michael Mundy (Darrell Johnston) reminisces he remembers the summer of 1936, a summer that changed his family for every. Having been raised by his mother Chrissy (Catherine McCormack) and her 4 sisters their home was varied as eldest sister Kate (Meryl Streep - Marvin's Room) was the moral disciplinarian whilst Maggie (Kathy Burke - Love, Honour and Obey) did her best to keep the home running. With their only brother, Jack (Michael Gambon - Toys), returning from 25 years working as a missionary in Africa they are all excited, although Jack's arrival is surprising as not only is he unwell and often delusional he has also lost some of his Christian beliefs. And Jack is not the only visitor that summer as Michael's father Gerry (Rhys Ifans) pays one of his fleeting visits before heading off to Spain. As the summer pans out there is plenty of fun but there is also sorrow and as times change so do the Mundy's in quite dramatic fashion.
In a way "Dancing at Lughnasa" does have everything you need for a very good movie and the actual storyline is quite interesting. Told from the perspective of an adult Michael we are taken back to Ballybeg and the summer of 1936, a summer which he will never forget. And the reason why is that there is plenty going on from his Uncle Jack returning after 25 years of missionary work in Africa both sick and a changed man through to his father who returns for one of his fleeting visits. And between livelihoods being threatened and romances the life of the Mundy's becomes changed for ever as issues between his mother and his aunts boil over.
There is not just various dramas we also have a diversity of characters with these 5 sisters living under the same roof with Kate taking on the role of the moral disciplinarian who expects certain beliefs and standards to be upheld whilst Maggie keeps the home running with cooking and cleaning. Michael's own mother goes with the flow but finds herself coming to life when Gerry, his father, shows up whilst Rose is both a romantic and simple who is protected by Agnes. These 5 women all raise Michael but their diverse personalities make for a boiling point of emotion just waiting to spill over. And with the sickly and often delusional Jack returning as well as the free willed Gerry we have a vast array of different personalities.
Of course with "Dancing at Lughnasa" being set in Ireland there is also the absolutely stunning landscape and with it being a nostalgic tale the added element of people working the land makes it all the more powerful. But at the same time we have the quirkiness of life in Ireland, the gossipy nature in the nearby town, the free willed spirit of those who enjoy the partying in the backwoods. Again it is basically another tick because it is the perfect setting creating a brilliant atmosphere.
And then there are the performances and whilst Meryl Streep may be the big name draw, and let me tell you she does a fantastic Irish accent, all of the performances are top draw. From Kathy Burke as Maggie through to Brid Brennan as Agnes every single character feels real. Even young Darrell Johnston as a young Michael is believable delivering the aspect of being raised not just by his mother but also by her 4 sisters.
But whilst all the parts are there to make "Dancing at Lughnasa" something is missing and that something feels like a purpose. We witness to how this summer changed the Mundy family but we never connect to it, never really feeling like we are part of it, just observers on the outside. And as such the gentle nature of this nostalgic tale has the effect of making it feel lethargic as the point never shows. In fact whilst I am sure for those who grew up at a similar time in similar circumstances will be able to connect to this story on a deeper level it ends up feeling to anyone else like a movie made for one person and that is the grown up Michael.
What this all boils down to is that "Dancing at Lughnasa" is not a bad movie, all the individual parts work be it the story, the acting or the nostalgic setting. But because the point of this story never comes across it ends up feeling both lethargic and a little self indulgent, like a movie made for one person rather than entertainment for everyone else.
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