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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 an early January 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... Written by
Russ W. <firstname.lastname@example.org>
In the February 1988 issue of 'Film Comment,' critic Stephen Harvey put this film on his Ten Best Films of 1987 list. See more »
Are you an ornithologist as well?
An amateur. I suppose being a singer makes me susceptible to other creatures that sing. Birds are the most beautiful singers of all. Just think of the widow warbler and the wren.
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This is truly a remarkable movie. "The Dead" shows us a turn-of-the-century Irish dinner party attended by a host of lost souls. It is a snapshot of people who either loved and lost, or never got to love at all. Everyone here longs for love -- not just ordinary fondness, but a condition where one almost sees God in the other person. (Those who have not experienced this will deem it maudlin.) For example, in the story, Anjelica Huston's character refers to one "Michael Fury" whose love for her had burned so intensely that he allowed himself to freeze to death in a river because he could not be hers. Such actions strike the idle passerby as pathetic (savage Americans would label Michael Fury a "loser"). But years later, when this kind of passion is deemed the only thing that matters, people privately develop a more respectful take on such things.
At dinner, tenor Frank Patterson sings for the guests, his lovely voice stealing through the walls like the scent of a garden into a tomb. Beauty like this makes us want to find someone, open our jugular vein, and urgently bleed into them. We feel that somewhere burns an unseen, silent, and impossibly distant Light. If only we could share that Light with someone, or at least share a quest for it. But how? Alas, we can only stand at the bedroom window alone, watching the snowfall like Anjelica Huston's husband (Donal McCann) does at the movie's end. Many characters in the movie spend their whole lives at that bedroom window. Others are like Michael Fury, dying in a freezing river as he stares at the house where his Beloved conducts her affairs, unresponsive to him. At one point, after a guest recites a moving poem, one of the female guests laments, "Imagine being loved like that." She means a devotion so intense as to rearrange our psyches. But her chance for love is gone, crushed beneath layers of dashed hopes now piled high like the snows of Ireland in the movie. No rose sprouts in these drifts; only long-buried yearnings that waft like a vapor around headstones.
This movie hints at secrets that are akin to something one experiences as a child who, lying awake and alone one night, spies a star outside the window and for an instant glimpses the Unspeakable. The child makes no mention of this to anyone - who would understand? ("That's nice, dear.") But the longing to share that glimpse with someone, or to share someone else's glimpse, burns until death. At the end of "The Dead," Anjelica Huston's husband realizes that he has shared no such glimpse with his wife, no such love. His wife has sobbed herself to sleep on the bed and remains silent as he looks out the bedroom window in the wee hours. Great stories have great dialogue, but the greatest have characters whose silence points to the realm of boundless could-be's. We hear the husband's lamenting thoughts as exterior night scenes melt into one another. Fields, starlit graveyards, wizened trees -- all hushed as "snow is gently falling all over Ireland, and falling gently."
No routine tale of collision between desire and proscription this; no melodramatic costume-struggle between attraction and social propriety. "The Dead" speaks to each person's Star of Bethlehem, glimpsed once and then repressed until something like this dinner party shakes it loose. On the morrow the guests will tell themselves that they simply had too much wine at the party, and will thereby seal Heaven into their mental cellar once more. Their pain will continue as always.
Sensitive and understated, I give this one top marks across the board. Bravo to John Huston. A fitting last effort by a great director.
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