The Eclipse

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June 13, 2011 by Matthew Mesaros

For the longest time there was very little to write about Irish cinema. Very little other than to express puzzlement as to how all the potential talent of the isle, the short film directors, the highly decorated authors, and the playwrights, never seemed to successfully transfer their talents over to feature filmmaking. It was compounded by An Bord Scannán na hÉireann’s (The Irish Film Board’s) frustrating tendency to primarily allocate funds to crass product – usually either trying to woo foreign markets with hokey nonsense or else make films for the native market that pointlessly try to ride the coat-tails of superior foreign vehicles.

I’m not here to say that situation has been fixed but, over the past few years, there have certainly been a few good signs. Between Anglo-Irish productions such as In Bruges (admittedly, not an Irish film from a production stand-point), which made impressive waves internationally, homegrown fare such as director Leonard Abrahamson and writer Mark O’Halloran’s various productions1, and larger European initiatives that resulted in The Secret of Kells, things have been looking up. If nothing else, the discourse Irish cinema can open up is becoming ever broader and that alone is of enormous importance.

Carving out an increasingly bigger name for himself is Conor McPherson, a highly decorated graduate of the theatre but still only a burgeoning talent in cinema. His name has been attached to some of the more successful Irish films of the past 15 years, most notably a writing credit for the well-received comedy I Went Down2, but thus far he has little to his name. With his latest film, The Eclipse3, it would appear he has found a new maturity in his work as he both adapts Billy Roach’s original tale and also directs it for the screen.

Based in the small seaside town of Cobh in County Cork, we find ourselves at the opening of an international literary festival. Locally, it’s a big event and this year they’ll have two very special guests: the internationally acclaimed American novelist Nicholas Holden (Aidan Quinn) and a highly-regarded penner of ghost stories, England’s Lena Morrell (Iben Hjejle). Behind the scenes we are introduced to Michael Farr (Ciarán Hinds), a local woodshop teacher who helps out every year as a volunteer.

Farr’s father-in-law is in poor health and resides at a nursing home. Meanwhile Michael and his two children, a young teenage daughter and pre-teen son, carry on in the wake of the recent loss of their mother. Soon Michael finds himself troubled by increasingly grim ghostly apparitions, not of his late wife but rather of his still living father-in-law. Through this he forges a connection with Lena, who’s most recent ghostly tome, the eponymous ‘The Eclipse,’ is based on her own personal experiences with ghosts. Meanwhile the egotistical Holden tries to rekindle an old fling with Lena, one he initiated under false pretenses, and he doesn’t much approve of her consorting with ‘the help.’

There are numerous facets of this particular film to discuss but it might be wise to open with a disclaimer. Most of the keywords that accompany The Eclipse suggest some kind of supernatural thriller. Unfortunately, much of the film’s marketing only serves to reinforce that perspective. Admittedly that might lead a few people to a pleasant surprise but it will likely leave plenty more frustrated by a film that seems almost entirely disinterested in the usual developments of that genre. Above all else, The Eclipse is concerned with the difficulty in coping with the vacuum created by the loss of a loved one.

Formed almost entirely in the careful interrelations of the main characters, most importantly Michael and Lena, we’re obviously in the presence of a playwright. Though often visually striking, The Eclipse is fundamentally built on the spoken word. The interactions of the various characters is given superb voice through unsteady, natural conversations while the subtle romance between Michael and Lena is beautifully developed, delicately forming out of a series of otherwise disparate conversations. The entire film confidently trades on a sense of ‘ordinary’ drama despite its supernatural overtones. No better example would be Michael’s return home only to find his daughter looking fearful. It’s not a bump in the night that has the girl worried but rather her brother’s careless insistence on venturing out to buy a can of Coke long after his bedtime. The drama kindled in Michael’s reaction reminds us again that the supernatural merely tints an otherwise more grounded frame.

It helps that McPherson has an experienced cast at his command. Aidan Quinn is easily the biggest name present but his is largely a supporting role, providing a dramatic fulcrum for later events. His good looks and star quality serve him well as the author Nicholas Holden, an acclaimed genius who’s all too aware of his talents. Hinds, a veteran of both cinema and stage, is an ideal choice for the main role. Known mostly as a character actor he brings a quiet assurance to the protagonist, playing an ordinary man trying to maintain his grip as the extraordinary intrudes.

Special mention should also go to Hannah Lynch for her portrayal of Sarah Farr, Michael’s teenage daughter. Though her character can claim no especially notable tasks within the film’s narrative, she remains a key figure; caught in a difficult role as she recognises she is now the household’s sole female presence. While her father tries to preserve things as they once were, she knows there’s more expected of her now that her mother is gone. This is especially true with regard to her younger brother and she does her best to quietly provide support. Her youthful countenance serves as an important counterpoint to her father’s lined face. She has been forced into an uncomfortable limbo, somewhere between child and surrogate for her deceased mother. Lynch’s disarming performance gives full voice to that dichotomy.

The seaside hamlet of Cobh provides a rather splendid backdrop. It’s a popular tourist destination but remains a fully functioning town – its picturesque vistas not being spoiled simply to lure in more visitors. Often in Irish cinema, such a locale might be more shamelessly exploited to entice foreign eyes4. Within The Eclipse, Cobh stands simply as it is – a town with a history that still very much occupies the present. This characteristic plays a major role in the film. The old exteriors of the buildings and the antiquated rural locations (such as a ruined monastery) are sharply contrasted by modern interiors and plenty of sophistication as the Literature Festival unfolds. This is the world ghosts now inhabit. As otherworldly cries shatter the still nights, the ancient legend of the Banshee’s wail5 is readily invoked, but these days it disturbs people as they sip wine and work at laptops.

On the subject of the supernatural, we find the crux of the film and unfortunately its most prominent weakness. The concept of the supernatural, or at least of highly abstract events permeating reality, is not something new to serve as allegory for social fallout. Although grander in its designs, Victor Erice’s mesmerising El espíritu de la colmena (aka The Spirit of the Beehive) could be cited as such an example. The ghosts here signify an unease deep-rooted in the loss of a loved one and a fear of a future without them. Though it undeniably has its shocks, trying to tout The Eclipse as a horror story does it no favours. The great misfortune, although it’s nowhere near enough to derail its finer qualities, is that McPherson does introduce certain tired tropes of horror and they can’t help but seem at odds with the larger project.

Starting quietly, with a vision of his father-in-law wandering through his house, Michael soon finds himself experiencing more unsettling and grotesque apparitions. Although they’re rare, interspersed carefully throughout the film, each vision comes with swells in the soundtrack and shock-cuts, a cheap trick designed to startle the audience. Here it seems the stamp of an inexperienced director, one who’s not assured of the strength of his own work. The bursts of sound are not necessary as we are already strongly invested in the vulnerability of the characters. By that same token that investment also means those scare-tactics work exceptionally well despite their lack of sophistication. It’s especially unfortunate in one sequence, as Michael’s father-in-law appears to him while he’s driving, because the careful unfolding of events within this segment is exceptionally well crafted, easily marking it out as one of the film’s most powerful sequences. The boom of the soundtrack is unworthy of a sequence, and indeed a film, that is otherwise so beautiful.

On the production side Ivan McCullough’s cinematography and Fionnuala Ní Chiosáin’s original score both deserve praise. Steeped in shadow but maintaining a largely naturalistic tone, McCullough’s images mirror the quiet lives of the inhabitants of the town. There’s nothing overtly stylised or ornate here, the quality of the characters being recognised as the film’s primary engine, but the limited lighting that robs clarity from the perimeters of rooms suggest an encroaching presence – be it the spirit world or simply the limits of the characters’ perception. Meanwhile Ní Chiosáin’s atmospheric music again creates a linking point between older traditional Irish music forms and more modern styles, thus mirroring the film’s use of location. It cements the other structural elements, subtly reinforcing the product as a whole.

There’s little else to add at this point. While The Eclipse might not stand out as a singularly innovative piece of cinema its strong sense of self and superb construction ensure it value. Sometimes, in the push for grand event and spectacle, it’s easy to overlook those quiet little films that highlight more quotidian concerns. After all, in a year’s worth of Hollywood blockbusters it’s hard to find a single compelling ‘character.’ They must be hiding elsewhere and this is one such place. It certainly inspires cautious optimism that McPherson may be meeting his undeniable potential. Only the briefly employed scare tactics scuff the surface of what is otherwise a true gem.

1 Thus far two features, Adam and Paul and Garage, and one short-form television series, the four-part Prosperity. One can only hope for further collaborations.

2 A film which bears more than a few narrative resemblances to the aforementioned In Bruges.

3 Perhaps an unfortunate choice of film title, threatening to be overshadowed by the Twilight sequel that shares almost the same name.

4 Of course it’s not just the Irish that are responsible. A year later, Amy Adams found herself stranded in the nearby town of Dingle in the American romantic comedy, Leap Year. The representation of the country was par for the course for those of us expecting the worst although the unadulterated laziness of the screenplay still managed to impress. If you’ve seen that film then you might consider The Eclipse a most wonderful antidote.

5 Wikipedia expands here.

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