DANCING AT LUGHNASA
Not So Little Women
Release Date: November 13, 1998
Starring: Brad Brennan, Michael Gambon,
Catherine McCormack, Meryl
Streep, & Sophie Thompson
Runtime: 94 minutes
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Director: Page O'Connor
Producer: Noel Pearson
Writer: Brian Friel & Frank McGuinness
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(C, AC, LL, S, AA, D, MM) Mild Christian worldview with Christian prayers & familial love, but strong anti-Christian content including an insane priest who loves African pagan practices & a bitter, puritanical home leader; 7 mild obscenities & 3 exclamations such as "Lord, almighty"; no violence; implied fornication & some kissing; no nudity; alcohol use & drunkenness; smoking; and, family dysfunction, arguing, the presence of an illegitimate child, & running away.
DANCING AT LUGHNASA tells of five unmarried adult sisters facing insanity and emotional bankruptcy in 1936 Ireland. Meryl Streep's Kate runs her home with a bitter puritanical attitude. While having Christian prayers and familial love, it does have some anti-Christian elements, an illegitimate child and eventual family decay.
DANCING AT LUGHNASA can be described as a not so LITTLE WOMEN-type story, of grown adult sisters living together, all unmarried, forming a family unit within a Christian society, but not facing boy trouble, or whom one should marry, or how to be neighborly, but much more sinister and damaging villainy such as insanity and emotional bankruptcy.
The year is 1936, in Ballybeg, Donegal, Ireland. Kate (Meryl Streep), the eldest of the Mundy family daughters, complains, bickers, naysays, and generally displays cantankerous and ill behavior in the name of propriety and decency toward her younger siblings. They scrape by working the land and raising some livestock. There, the youngest Mundy daughter, Christina (Catherine McCormack), raises her illegitimate son Michael, who narrates the story.
That summer, the Mundy family gets two visitors. The first is their eldest brother, Jack (Michael Gambon), a Catholic priest who has been working in Africa for nearly 30 years. Michael, Christina and all the sisters quickly realize that Jack is not right in the head. Not only is he disoriented, but he also carries on fondly about African religious services that worship false gods. (The audience member wonders if he represented Christ at all to the Africans.) Jack also approves of Christina's "love-child" and encourages all his sisters to have a "love child."
The second visitor is Michael's Welsh father Gerry Evens. He comes to visit his son and say goodbye to Christina. Michael tells her he is on his way to fight for Franco in Spain. At the Mundy home, Gerry gives Michael a ride on his motorcycle, sister Rose (Sophia Thompson, Emma Thompson's sister) runs away for an afternoon with a local married man, Jack displays more senility and affection for African religions, Kate tightens the screws, and a little dancing is peppered in between. Finally, one sister loses her job, two run away, a family member dies, and Michael recollects it all.
While beautifully photographed and demonstrating some earnest characterizations, DANCING AT LUGHNEASA lacks a clear, driving plot line and a central theme. (Catherine McCormack acted in an earlier movie this year with similar problems called LAND GIRLS.) Jack is crazy, Kate is mean, and Christine loves Gerry. Fine. But why? And, why should the audience care? This movie doesn't answer these questions. It tries to cover a slice of life in time at a particular location, like ENCHANTED APRIL, but it offers no lessons.
Unlike LITTLE WOMEN, the Mundy family shares love but little courage or strength, and it slowly deteriorates. Finally, a crucial scene where all the sisters dance together seems unmotivated and contrived. The fact that Kate would take part in it seems contrary to her negative stance on dancing throughout the story.
Despite portraying a family which wants to be unified and full of love, the writer or director seems to have an antagonistic attitude towards Christianity. Uncle Jack displays insanity and an attraction to false religions. While his insanity may be excusable, his tolerance and celebration for false religions is not. Secondly, despite accent and period clothes, Meryl Streep's character is little more than the stereotypical prude, created out of haughty pride and fear through alleged Christian Puritanism. This movie will be Streep's second release this fall and perhaps her first will display more dimensions and complexity, something she has been famous for in the past.
DANCING AT LUGHNASA does demonstrate family, hard work, defending one another, Christian prayers, personal dignity, and a sharp portrait of a moment in time. It doesn't have the strength or focus, however, of the Oscar-caliber dramas that hit the screens in the fall every year hoping to gather national attention and kudos from the industry. It is an earnest but unsuccessful attempt at a poignant period piece.