THE DEAD, 1987
Directed by: John Huston
Starring: Anjelica Huston, Donal McCann, Donal Donnelly, Marie Kean, Dan O’Herlihy, Ingrid Craigie, Helena Carroll, Cathleen Delany
Review by Virginia DeWitt
On January 6, 1904 in Dublin, Gabriel and Gretta Conroy arrive for the annual dinner to celebrate Epiphany with family and friends hosted by Gabriel’s maiden aunts, Julia and Kate Morkan. As the evening wears on, Gabriel notices Gretta seems preoccupied and distracted despite the convivial atmosphere of the celebration. Later that night, when they are finally alone, Gretta reveals to Gabriel a long buried episode in her life which he never suspected.
This adaptation of James Joyce’s short story from the collection “Dubliners” (1914) is the last film John Huston completed. The project has many sentimental components, as two of Huston’s children worked with him; Anjelica Huston in the lead role as Gretta and Tony Huston, who wrote the screenplay. As well, Ireland had long provided a home for him and his family. Nonetheless, the film is beautifully clear eyed and restrained in its presentation of Joyce’s story, allowing the writer’s vision and language to take precedence. The core of the story is concerned with the social, cultural and familial byways of Dublin life, which are so much a fixture of Joyce’s writing. Its climactic scene, however, occurs later between Gabriel (Donal McCann) and Gretta and was inspired by Joyce’s wife, Nora’s, own youthful experiences growing up in Galway. The story itself, the crown jewel in the string of jewels that comprises “Dubliners”, is a beautifully observed meditation on memory, loss, and the impermanence of life.
These themes, not unsurprisingly, seem to resonate with the dying Huston. The film is a departure for him on every level. He had spent his career chronicling the often nefarious exploits of con artists, thieves, misfits and adventurers, and always with an unblinking, but still affectionate and understanding, eye. But Huston’s reverence for Joyce’s writing is complete and, as director, he submits to the writer’s language and vision wholeheartedly. “The Dead” is Joyce’s careful evocation of a very particular strata of Irish life. This is the genteel, middle class Irish society from which Joyce had fled and yet he details their concerns, their seemingly inconsequential interactions, their quiet desires with patience and sensitivity. John Huston, directing from Tony Huston’s Oscar nominated screenplay which is an intelligent and careful rendering of the original story, clearly relates to Joyce’s empathy for these people. As a result, the film is laden with delicately observed moments from a veteran ensemble Irish cast.
It’s worth noting that Huston also delights in Joyce’s humor which is seamlessly woven into the fabric of the story. Local drunk, Freddy Malins (Donal Donnelly), and his comrade in drinking, Mr. Brown (Dan O’Herlihy) present a constant challenge to the Misses Morkan, Aunt Kate (Helena Carroll) and Aunt Julia (Cathleen Delany) and their niece, Mary Jane (Ingrid Craigie) as well as their guests, as everyone struggles to keep the booze away from Freddy, in particular. Equally, Freddy’s relationship with his domineering mother, played by Marie Kean, which might have been unbearable as she makes it clear she is thoroughly disappointed in him as a man, is rendered in subtly funny asides and exchanges that are enhanced by the two actors’ amusing rapport and sure handling of these short scenes.
The focus on character in “The Dead”, as opposed to a plot driven dynamic, allows Huston to meticulously unfold the details on these people’s lives. As the elderly Aunt Julia sings “Arrayed For the Bridal” in a voice wavering with age, Huston’s camera lovingly captures, via the use of montage, the visual details of her private world upstairs. The careful pace of the film also allows writer and director to explore the theme of lost love that Joyce delineated, and it echoes throughout the story. Whether it is the maid, Lily’s (Rachael Dowling), hurt reply when Gabriel casually inquires if they’ll all be attending her wedding soon; or, Mr. Grace’s (Sean McClory) reading of the haunting poem “Broken Vows”; or, finally Aunt Kate’s bittersweet, romantic reverie of the beautiful English tenor of her youth; all hint fleetingly at the sense of loss that will culminate in Gretta’s revelation to Gabriel regarding her first love and his tragic end.
The flawless Irish cast, headed by Anjelica Huston and Donal McCann, are pitch perfect in their reading of Joyce’s characters. There is not a false note to be heard in the suite of overlapping voices that is so integral to the success of recreating this vanished world. Of particular note, is Donal McCann’s quiet emotion as he, in voice over, speaks the final, lyrical words of “The Dead”:
“Yes, the newspaper are right , snow is general all over Ireland …. softly falling into the dark, mutinous Shannon waves. One by one we are all becoming shades. Better to pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age… Snow is falling, …. falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling like the descent of their last end upon all the living and the dead.”
The film is further enhanced by Alex North’s graceful, delicate score which is made up primarily of Irish harp music. But the actor’s voices, spoken and sung, provide their own kind of music and Huston lets them ring out. In a perfect example of what a film can give you, which even a literary masterpiece like “Dubliners” cannot, is the sense of being present with these people and hearing them express themselves in language and song. Bartell Darcy’s (Frank Patterson) haunting rendition of “The Lass of Aughrim” after dinner, as Gretta stands transfixed on the stairway, moved by the beauty of the tenor voice singing provides a pivotal moment in the story. While Joyce is able to sketch it for us, Huston is able to take us there and provide an unforgettable visual and emotional moment.
“The Dead” is the rare example of the cinematic adaptation of a literary masterpiece that satisfies completely and lives up to the high expectations we bring to it. Perhaps, it is precisely because it is a short story, and therefore its parameters can be encompassed. Huston was smart enough not to attempt “Ulysses”, for example, as his final project, and so he brought all of his understanding and skill to this small, quiet and deeply felt film.