Monday, December 04, 2006

THE DEAD - simple, lyrical, superb

THE DEAD is a beautiful romantic period drama, based faithfully on a short story by James Joyce. It was directed by the cinematic great John Huston at the end of his life, scripted by his son Tony and starred his daughter Angelica supported by a cast of Irish thespians.

The story is set in Ireland in 1904. Two genteel ladies are giving a Christmas party at their house. They showcase their pupils' musical talents and worry about their cousin Freddy's inability to keep off the booze. An old man reads a traditional Irish
poem about love betrayed. The conversation drifts from politics to religion to temperance and the first half of the short, eighty-five minute film is simply a charming depiction of intimate family life in the era. But our attention is caught by Angelica Huston playing Gretta Conroy and her husband Gabriel. Returning to their hotel after the party, Gretta is prompted to tell her husband of a young boy who loved her passionately and fatally. It is a deeply moving confession - or rather, reflection - and her husband's reaction contains all the slow-burning drama that one could hope for.

The great achievement of John Huston is in letting the novella breathe, rather than trussing it up for the modern audience. He sticks firmly to the 1904 setting and rarely ventures beyond the drawing room, the hallway and the hotel room except in a stunning scene of snow falling at the end. The camera movement is unintrusive, allowing us to appreciate the setting, the costumes and the incidental details of family life. As such, the quite breathtaking revelations in the second part of the film seem all the more profound.

At first, THE DEAD rather reminded me of the recent release, GABRIELLE. Both are essentially intimate chamber dramas featuring a wife's confession to her husband and his reaction to it. Both are set in turn of the twentieth century cities and portray the social lives of the middle classes. But here the similarities end. Where Chereau uses deliberately jarring visual techniques, Huston goes for realism. Where Chereau's couple are brutally cruel and the epiphanies are hard won, THE DEAD is full of gentle, blameless longing. GABRIELLE is a movie about thwarted passion and social compromise: THE DEAD is lyrical, tender and full of longing. It is a gentler, equally affecting, and superb film.

THE DEAD was originally released in 1987. It is now on limited re-release in the UK.

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