Monday, February 26, 2007

Cinema: The Dead

I went to see The Dead yesterday afternoon in the IFI, which was being shown as part of a season of John Huston films. Adapted from the short story by James Joyce, it takes place over one evening, the 6th January 1904, at the home of the Morkham sisters, well-established members of the Dublin musical scene.
Played initially as an ensemble with a large cast of characters dancing, sharing memories, arguing, performing party pieces, getting pissed and eating, the closing stages of the film focus on the sisters' nephew Gabriel Conroy and his wife Gretta as she is overcome on hearing 'The Lass of Aughrim', sung by the tenor Bartell Darcy. It reminds her of Michael Furey, who loved her when she was a girl growing up in Galway and, on hearing she was to move to Dublin, died because, she says, he could not bear the prospect of life without her.
On hearing this in a bare room in the Gresham Hotel, Gabriel reflects on his own life and how he has never really experienced love or felt passion in that way. Earlier in the film we see that Gabriel is an 'empty shell', and attempts to construct an identity for himself by writing for the Daily Express and going on cycling holidays in Belgium. When pulled up on this by ardent nationalist Molly Ivors, who calls him a West Brit, Gabriel replies he is tired of 'his country' and rejects the notion that Irish is his language.
He also plays the role of dutiful nephew, giving a pompous speech about his aunts at the dinner and later imagining one of them dying and being unable to deliver any words of comfort. Language without feeling is a dessicated husk and Gabriel is only eloquent after realising the counterfeit nature of his own life, delivering the famous closing sentences of the snow falling on the 'dark mutinous Shannon waves' and 'like the descent of their last end, on all the living and the dead.'
I remember when the film came out first in 1987, I was going through a particularly pretentious phase, and went to see it twice, on the second occasion I brought along a few mates from school who were so bored with what was on offer that they decided to organise a 'pile-up' at the back of the cinema, a show of boisterousness that shocked my precious thirteen year old self. Curiously, a woman made a similar mistake at yesterday's screening by bringing her two young daughters along to what is really an adult film, given its themes of lost love, regret and death.

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