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Review: Streep overshadowed by others 'Dancing at Lughnasa'

Web posted on:
Wednesday, December 09, 1998 5:03:04 PM EST

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- I just got done cracking wise for two solid pages about the movie-style Irishness in "Waking Ned Devine," and now I'm confronted with the far more effective, though every bit as brogue-broiled, "Dancing at Lughnasa."

Based on Brian Friel's Tony Award-winning play, this is one of those movies that has tons going for it, but the seriousness of the enterprise -- and the expertise of the cast, headed by Meryl "Any Accent, Any Time" Streep -- stamps everything with capital letters.

You know what I mean by that. The people in this Ireland (the story is set in a small village in the late 1930s) don't just live, argue, and dance. They Live, Argue, and Dance. That's more a result of the precisely stated style of stage dialogue than anything else, a topic that I've written about so many times before, I'm actually going to pass this time. In a nutshell, when you're on a stage, you usually have to say it rather than show it. It's just the nature of the beast.

Theatrical preview: "Dancing at Lughnasa"

Windows Media: 28k or 56k
Real: 28k or 56k

Clip: "Where is Michael's father?"

Video clip: 2.8Mb QuickTime

This is a decent film, but the nature of the beast writing this review is to try to figure things out for himself once in a while, rather than having it delivered with a bow tied around it by precisely-articulate characters or an omniscient narrator (you get both in "Dancing at Lughnasa").

Almost too meaty

Then there's the acting to contend with. Again, I'm not trying to say that this stuff is bad, not by any means, but the roles are almost too meaty for their own good. Or the actors are too aware of their own abilities to make anything seem completely naturalistic.

That's the other capital letter. With a couple of notable exceptions, there's a whole lot of Acting going on here. Most of the cast can't sit still if they detect the slightest opening for a quirky glance, flickering gaze, or evocative posture. And the brogue gets chewed on like it's a bag full of Gummi Bears. I believed most of it, but I was also encouraged to simultaneously believe (in just about every scene) that everybody was doing a astonishing job of acting, a concept that should fall to the wayside if you're actually caught up in what's going on in the story.

That story centers around five sisters who Live, Argue, and Dance together on a small farm. (The scenery is simply beautiful, just as it is in every other movie set in the Irish countryside.) The oldest and meanest sister is Kate, played by Streep.

I think Streep is the single greatest film actress of the past 20 years, but I quite often come across people who have trouble with her performances. They tend to feel that she's doing shtick. I think, though, that if wholly immersing yourself in a character and delivering a flawless accent, time and again, for two decades is shtick, then bring it on.

This time, though, I can see what they're talking about. She overdoes it a bit. The controlling Kate is such a stick-in-the-mud that Streep must have had herself hammered into a bog to prepare for the role. Half the movie is occupied with her viciously snapping at somebody, then being told to shut her trap (with the accent -- "Shoot oop Kyaaate!"). I couldn't have agreed more.

Streep overshadowed

Fortunately, there were two performances that unexpectedly overshadowed Streep, leaving me with something to hold on to in every third or fourth scene.

The sisters' brother, Jack, a priest who's returning to their home after 25 years as a missionary in Africa, is brilliantly embodied by Michael Gambon. Jack has pretty much lost his bearings as far as Catholicism goes. He now seems more interested in tribal headdresses and tales of animal sacrifice than he is in wine and communion wafers.

This, of course, irks Kate to no end, but the other women show a considerably softer touch towards this sweetly puzzled old man. Jack's mental stability deteriorates as the movie progresses, but he has an understanding of the human heart that anchors much of the storytelling. This is a well-written character that's also extremely well-played.

The sisters' ranks are filled out by Maggie (Kathy Burke), whose optimism and good cheer serve as a sort of sherbet to cleanse your palate of the steady diet of bitterness; the rather placid Agnes (Brid Brennan); the simple-minded Rose (Sophie Thompson -- this character, as always, is good for some "profound" social misperception); and Christina (the regular-woman gorgeous Catherine McCormack).

Christina has a young son to take care of, since her boyfriend, Gerry (Rhys Ifans), got her pregnant, then thoughtfully took off for the hills. Gerry returns (much to Kate's consternation, at which point she's told to "shoot oop"), which helps set into motion the events that will eventually tear the family apart.

McCormack is stunning on several levels. I didn't realize until a couple of scenes into the movie that she was the same actress who so impressed me in the recent "Land Girls." There's something of Maureen O'Hara in McCormack; she has the look of an old-fashioned girl while glowing with a kind of wholesome sexuality. She adds a burst of energy to every scene she's in, and her graceful physicality seems completely spontaneous.

I said this in my review of "Land Girls," and I'll say it again: She deserves to be a big, worldwide star. Keep an eye open for her, and pray that nobody forces her into a supporting role in some lame-brained action movie.

"Dancing at Lughnasa" contains a somewhat frightening scene in which it looks like Rose may be on the verge of either getting raped or murdered. Other than that, there's just a lot of accusing and arguing, and a couple of sexual situations. Look for the "Lucky Charms" leprechaun, who has a powerful moment as an enraged shopkeeper. (Not really.) Rated PG. 95 minutes.

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