In hard times family is often the only refuge. But sometimes it comes at a price. Blood relatives may lend each other a helping hand, but they can be quicker than outsiders to pass judgment on each other. Deep familial love can also be accompanied by rivalries and jealousies that refuse to die.
Dancing at Lughnasa set in Donegal, Ireland, in 1936, dramatizes the lives of the five unmarried Mundy sisters who struggle together to keep the family farm from going under. Director Pat O'Connor (Circle of Friends) and screenwriter Frank McGuinness have adapted Brian Friel's play so that interpersonal relationships drive the story.
One of the subtexts is the juxta-position of Catholic and pagan spirituality. The movie is neither anti-Church nor anti-clerical, but orthodox faith isn't depicted as being of much use to any of the characters. Human love, in all its tangled mysteries, is upheld as the highest value.
The oldest sister, Kate (Meryl Streep), is a bossy schoolteacher. Nicknamed “the gander” by her students, she makes all the key family decisions and tries to keep her younger siblings in line. A practicing Catholic, she's the most devout of the sisters. But the rules of religion seem more important to her than compassion, and she uses them to judge and manipulate others.
The other sisters seem to need her leadership. The mentally slow Rose (Sophie Thompson) has a married boyfriend whom she often sneaks off to meet despite Kate's strong disapproval. Aggie (Brid Brennan) brings in extra money by knitting sweaters at home and usually takes Rose's side in family quarrels.
Maggie (Kathy Burke) has an earthy sense of humor which contrasts with Kate's primness, and she's the only sibling willing to stand up to her. Christina (Catherine McCormack) is the pretty one. She has an illegitimate eight-year-old son, Michael (Darrell Johnston), whom her sisters are helping raise. He narrates the story from the perspective of an adult several decades later.
Two men enter the sisters' lives, and neither is much help. Gerry Evans (Rhys Ifan) is the father of Christina's child. A dashing Welshman who teaches dancing, he charms all the sisters except Kate. His son, of course, adores him despite his rare visits.
Settling down is far from Gerry's mind. He's decided to go off to Spain to fight Franco and the fascists, and he drops in on the Mundys to say good-bye and briefly rekindle his romance with Christina.
The other man is the sisters' brother, Jack (Michael Gambon), a priest who's worked 30 years in African missions. “To have a priest in the family is a great honor,” Kate observes.
The Mundys and all their neighbors are proud of Father Jack. But he returns a broken man, both physically and mentally. “I think I've come home to die,” he says.
Father Jack is obsessed with African folk religion. He rambles on about witch doctors and ritual sacrifices. His conversation includes almost no references to the Catholic faith. Because of this, the local parish priest, who's presented as a cold, unfeeling figure, refuses to let him celebrate Mass. The filmmakers don't treat Father Jack's pagan sympathies as superior to Christian beliefs. But they don't peg them as inferior either — just different.
Father Jack accompanies Rose to a secret pagan harvest festival held in the nearby woods. Her boyfriend is an enthusiastic participant. Both Mundys are repulsed. All they see is heavy drinking and lascivious behavior. They quickly leave. The filmmakers depict the pagan ceremony as an ecstatic release for the repressed peasantry. But it isn't shown to provide any lasting sustenance.
The movie's most potent scene is the sisters' own moment of release. A lively Irish folk tune is heard on the radio. The five women abandon their chores, join hands, and begin to dance. Unlike the pagan activities at the harvest festival, the music's frenzied rhythms not only help the sisters cut loose but also bring them closer to one another. They naturally anticipate each other's moves and experience a profound collective joy.
Bad fortune strikes. Kate is laid off by the Catholic school where she teaches, and a textile mill opens nearby that may take business away from Aggie's home knitting.
The Mundy sisters are survivors. Our hearts go out to them, and we root for them to prevail. But it's too bad both the movie and the original play ignore the role that faith can play in holding together a close knit family like theirs.
Arts & Culture correspondent John Prizer writes from Los Angeles.
Dancing at Lughnasa is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA).