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John Huston's last film is a labor of love at several levels: an adaptation of perhaps one of the greatest pieces of English-language literature by one of Huston's favorite authors, James Joyce; a love letter to the land of his ancestors and the country where his children grew up; and the chance to work with his screenwriter son Tony and his actress daughter Anjelica. The film is delicate and unhurried, detailing a Christmas dinner at the house of two spinster musician sisters and their niece in turn-of-the-century Ireland, attended by friends and family. Among the visiting attendees are the sisters' nephew Gabriel Conroy and his wife Gretta. The evening's reminiscences bring up melancholy memories for Gretta concerning her first, long-lost love when she was a girl in rural Galway. Her recounting of this tragic love to Gabriel brings him to an epiphany: he learns the difference between mere existence and living. The all-Irish cast and careful period detail give the piece richness and ... Written by
Russ W. <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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A faithful screen adaption by a director at the peak of his powers
Superlatives really are a dangerous thing. No sooner do we rashly assert something as being unsurpassable, the object of our veneration immediately becomes just that. James Joyce's concluding story in his book 'Dubliners,' entitled, 'The Dead,' was always going to be the exception to that rule. It's been described by a number of critics over the years as the greatest short story in the English language. After seeking the story out many years ago when I was a teenager, I can do nothing but agree whole heartedly with the critics.
The story captured a time, a place, and a romanticism that I've dreamt about all my life. The setting is a house at the turn of the century, filled with guests from all over Ireland, who gather for an evening of dancing, poetry and piano recitals.
Joyce's consummate story telling, is not found in the almost mechanical way most authors put their stories together, but it's revealed in the sheer power and strength of feeling projected by the characters involved; Gabriel's concern about his after dinner speech and the ongoing changes in Ireland, Gretta's secret passion for someone she'd once loved and lost, and now even the mere acknowledgment of such a love threatens to destabilize her relationship with Gabriel, Freddie's inability to rise beyond his drug dependency, the arrogant tenor Mr D'Arcy at the table loudly trying to upgrade his status through his supposed musical superiority, Lilly the housemaid all nervousness and efficiency, the list goes on: each playing their part with absolutely convincing character motivation.
How could John Huston's film ever really of taken on such a literary masterpiece and still proved faithful? Well, to his credit, he comes pretty close.
Of course when we're reading a story, an author often leaves a degree of ambiguity, specific areas in which we're allowed to interpret our own mental pictures from the words cited. Joyce was no different. Here lies the problem: transfering a work of fiction to celluloid is like trying to join up the dots. Not everyone is going to recognize the picture and be happy with the adaptation.
Personally, I loved the film. However, there were a couple of scenes that I knew were going to prove a problem, and they did prove problematic. Firstly, when Gretta defers her descent down the stairs after dinner, because she's filled with thought's of Michael Furey and the love that she'd lost. The memories come flooding back. She can hear his voice superimposed over D'arcy's and it unsettles her. It's such a deep enduring moment. In the film, Huston just looks away dreamily. There's very little to express the full range of thoughts rushing through her head. It's not Angelica Huston's fault. It simply highlights how difficult it is to accommodate the limitless expression of literature to the silver screen, which is why like an earlier commentator on this film asserted, I too strongly recommend that Joyce's story is read first. It really does add a great deal.
The second scene that troubled me was the ending. It doesn't even begin to pack the tremendous power of Joyce's written word. How could it? This is a stream of subconscious thought extracted from the greatest short story in the English language reduced to a simple voice-over.
Ah, well! Still a good film. Overall Rating: 8 out of ten.
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