Irish playwright Conor McPherson’s The Eclipse is unusual in two respects. First, it’s an unusually mature and sober romantic drama. Second, it combines that drama with supernatural horror in an unusual way.
Ciaran Hinds stars as Michael Farr, a small-town schoolteacher struggling to deal with the loss of his wife to cancer two years earlier. As Michael describes his loss, “It’s hard on the kids,” but we see that his children are resilient and that his teen daughter (Hannah Lynch) spends a lot of time worrying about her father’s well-being. Hinds delivers a wonderfully rich performance as this hulking, stoic man who tries to maintain an air of normalcy, but frequently finds himself brooding. There’s so much pent-up sorrow and anger within Michael Farr that it’s a powerful moment when he finally breaks down and shows how vulnerable he is.
Michael volunteers at the local literary festival, and is assigned to look after Lena Morelle (Iben Hjejle), an author of ghost stories. Michael is particularly drawn to Lena because he suspects that he’s being haunted by the spirit of his father-in-law (Jim Norton), who is near death in a nursing home. As Michael shows Lena around the gorgeous seaside village (Cobh, in County Cork, Ireland), cautiously withholding pivotal bits of information about his life, the two form a friendly bond.
Michael has a less friendly encounter with Nicholas Holden (Aidan Quinn). Nicholas is very successful author and a star attraction at the literary festival. He’s also an arrogant blowhard and a philanderer, and he’s intent on rekindling a brief affair he had with Lena.
While the budding attraction between Michael and Lena is presented with tenderness, warmth, and wit, Nicholas is a bit of a straw man. As played by Quinn, he’s mean and transparently mendacious. He constantly whines about having to put up with his fans at the festival. It’s certainly possible -- likely even -- that such people exist, but it’s difficult to understand why the smart and apparently level-headed Lena would ever be attracted to him. The film might be more compelling if Nicholas was more charming, but it’s a minor flaw in an otherwise surefooted drama.
Those who expect The Eclipse to be a mellow Irish literary romance are in for a surprise. The supernatural elements are treated bluntly, including shock cuts and blaring musical cues. Listen to the clever way Fionnuala Ni Chiosain’s score moves from a heavenly children’s chorale (while Michael has a sweet romantic fantasy about Lena) to a sustained dissonant howl of terror when the apparition reveals itself. This is not the naturalistic presentation of the supernatural one might expect. It’s a jolt, and there are several of them in the film.
The incongruity works surprisingly well. That’s due partly to the gravitas of Hinds’ performance, partly to the savvy way McPherson has worked the ghosts into the plot, and partly to the setting. Cinematographer Ivan McCullough captures the fragile beauty of Cobh, with its cliffs and ruins, but there’s an underlying pall to his work here. The sky is always overcast, and figures are always backlit. The film is full of silhouettes and shadows, giving even the most gorgeous scenery an element of gloom and sadness. The horror jolts us, as it does the characters, but it doesn’t seem completely out of place.
McPherson avoids simple answers in both the romantic and ghost story plots, and, thanks again to the soulfulness of Hinds’ performance, keeps us invested in Michael’s fate. It adds up to a satisfying movie experience, both visceral and emotionally potent.
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- Released: 2009
- Rating: R
- Review: Irish playwright Conor McPherson’s The Eclipse is unusual in two respects. First, it’s an unusually mature and sober romantic drama. Second, it combines that drama with supernatural horror in an unusual way. Ciaran Hinds stars as Michael Farr, a small… (more)